First Read���s Morning Clips: Trump Wanted Tenfold Nuclear Increase

In his 1945 essay “Freedom of the Park,” George Orwell wrote that “if large numbers of people believe in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech even if the law forbids it. But if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be prosecuted, even if laws exist to protect them."

In the United States, Orwell’s cherished values of free speech and a free press are protected by the First Amendment, the foundation of our form of government. But recent studies indicate that large numbers of Americans do not understand or support the First Amendment, and that some are deliberately hostile to the ideas of free speech and a free press when the views at issue are contrary to their own points of view.

The most prominent of these Americans is President Donald Trump, who has yet again made statements hostile to the First Amendment.

Mr. Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday morning to denounce a story from NBC News, which had alleged that Mr. Trump had called for an increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. But rather than issue his standard dismissal of “fake news,” Mr. Trump speculated about ways in which he could stop an outlet from publishing unfavorable articles.

Fake @NBCNews made up a story that I wanted a "tenfold" increase in our U.S. nuclear arsenal. Pure fiction, made up to demean. NBC = CNN!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2017

With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2017

This is not the first time Mr. Trump has suggested that his support for the First Amendment is sharply limited.

During his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump claimed that he was going to “open up our libel laws” in response to a series of critical articles published by outlets like the New York Times. Last week, Mr. Trump sent a tweet asking why the Senate isn’t investigating the country’s “fake news” problem. And, of course, the President has continued to spar with the NFL over players’ protests during the National Anthem.

His continued attacks have caused at least one member of Congress, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, to question whether Mr. Trump is in the process of recanting his oath to uphold the Constitution.

But if one puts Mr. Trump’s commitment to the Constitution aside for a moment — something he seems to have done with regularity in regards to free speech — there is evidence to suggest that his positions on the First Amendment are shared by much of the general public.

VIDEO: Trump's attitude could further degrade support for the First Amendment

A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania released last month revealed that 37 percent of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. The Newseum Institute's 2017 State of the First Amendment survey found that 43 percent of all Americans believe colleges should be allowed to ban controversial speakers and 22.5 percent said they think the First Amendment “goes too far” in its protections.

As if this isn’t troubling enough, the country’s next generation of citizens seem to show an even greater lack of understanding of the First Amendment. The Brookings Institute released a study last month that found 40 percent of students believe “hate speech” is not protected by the First Amendment. It is.

Fifty percent believe that upsetting speech should be shut down. It shouldn't.

And 19 percent said physical violence is an appropriate response to upsetting speech. It isn’t.

What this shows is that far too many Americans do not understand what gives them the right to speak their mind with impunity or why a free press, for all of its flaws and limitations, is an essential safeguard of their rights.

The First Amendment has been described as the right from which all others flow and, as a result, the public’s understanding of how it works is key to it working properly.

Whether the threats arise from ignorance, misunderstanding, or ideological differences, a weakening of First Amendment privileges is a threat to this country and the well-being of all of its citizens.

>Read last week’s ‘Free Speech For Thee?’ column

America’s collective ignorance of the workings of the First Amendment cannot be blamed on Mr. Trump. Instead, the studies cited above show that our understanding and faith in the First Amendment has been deteriorating for quite sometime. But when you couple Mr. Trump’s public attacks on free speech and freedom of the press with this ignorance, it is a dangerous and volatile mix that has potential to do real and permanent damage to our liberties.

We must not let it happen.

Contact Will Tomer at [email protected], 419-724-6404, or on Twitter @WillTomer.

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