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Some on both sides want to stifle the press

POSTED: August 4, 2017 6:00 p.m.
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Eric Schulzke writes for Deseret News, a "values-oriented" syndication service.

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A new Economist/YouGov poll shows that 45 percent of Republicans favor using the courts to "shut down" media outlets that publish "biased or inaccurate" reports.

The phrasing of the question that evoked the surprising response was hardly ambiguous: "Generally speaking, do you favor or oppose permitting the courts to shut down news media outlets for publishing or broadcasting stories that are biased or inaccurate — or haven’t you heard enough about that yet to say?"

"This is an abject disgrace," writes prominent conservative blogger Allahpundit on Hot Air, "45/20, tantalizingly close to a clear majority for torching the First Amendment. Nothing says ‘small government’ like telling judges to close down newspapers for having too much of a point of view."

Republican antipathy toward the news media is longstanding. But the "shutdown" sentiment in this poll appears to track President Trump’s ongoing feud with mainstream news media outlets such as CNN. Earlier this week, he again used the catchphrase "fake media, fake news" when speaking to the Boy Scout National Jamboree.

No one really knows what an attempt to use courts to shut down biased media would look like. There is no longstanding discourse in American politics on this point, and some have suggested that the near-majority GOP sentiment is more an instinctive echo of Trump’s war with the media than a true policy view.

"Experts say it’s not hard to draw a straight line between these results and Trump’s rhetoric," notes Zack Beauchamp at Vox.com. "Basically, they say, Republicans are adjusting their opinions on press freedom to fit the kind of language they hear from the leader of their party."

Americans on the left have also proposed exceptions to the First Amendment. A 2015 YouGov poll found that 51 percent of Democrats favored criminalizing "hate speech."

Hate speech, however, falls into a dialogue courts have struggled with for over a century. That old debate has had many iconic moments, including 40 years ago last month, in June of 1977, when the Supreme Court was asked to decide about a group of neo-Nazis who wanted to march with swastikas through Skokie, Illinois, home to numerous Holocaust survivors.

The U.S. Supreme Court in the Skokie case did not reach a decision on the merits, and the march never took place, but debate over limits to offensive speech have never disappeared.

Last month, a unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court held that the federal government could not use trademark registration policy to attack perceived "hate speech." The decision centered on an Asian-American rock band calling itself "The Slants," which had been denied trademark protection by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

In a concurrence with the unanimous Supreme Court decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy warned that "a law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all."

Every year, the First Amendment Center at the Newseum does a national survey and report on the State of the First Amendment, giving grades for speech, petition, assembly and religious protections.

The 2017 report gave the country a C+ grade on free speech.

"We were glad to find that most Americans still support the First Amendment, Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center, said in a statement, "although it’s troubling that almost one in four think that we have too much freedom. It’s also troubling that even people who support the First Amendment in the abstract often dislike it when it’s applied in real life."

"College campuses, once relied upon as a marketplace of ideas, have become intolerant. Every slight or offense has been labeled ‘hate speech,’" said Lucy Dalglish, a panelist for the 2017 First Amendment Report and dean of the college of journalism at the University of Maryland.

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