“Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press.”
— James Madison (1800)
I recently taught freedom of speech law to students in Slovenia. I explained that here, under the First Amendment, we can say pretty much whatever we like. We can criticize politicians and insult public figures without fear of punishment.
In that sense, we are different from most countries, including Turkey, where press freedom has been going downhill for years.
That country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently took offense over a late night parody on German television by a popular television comedian. Jan Böhmermann took aim at Erdogan with a piece of doggerel satire. It wasn’t in the best of taste, but it was the sort of thing we see all the time. Erdogan lodged a complaint with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who invoked an obscure German law that makes it a crime to “insult” the head of another country. While Merkel is generally a staunch defender of press freedom and has criticized the law, she nonetheless authorized a prosecution that carries a possible fine and up to five years in jail.
If Erdogan tried to bring such a case in this country, he would be laughed out of court. In the 1988 case of Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, the Supreme Court reinforced our First Amendment protection to the same sort of insulting speech directed to a public figure.
The Times of London was highly critical of Merkel, calling her response to Erdogan “a retreat from one of the most basic tenets of democracy — the right of free expression.” The New York Times put the blame squarely on Erdogan, calling him “a ruthless and intolerant ruler who has proven that he does not really believe in and cannot abide his country’s democratic system.”
President Erdogan and U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump have fired a number of verbal shots at each other, but their attitude toward the press may put them on common ground. Trump proposes to “open up” our libel laws so that when a newspaper publishes a “hit piece which is a total disgrace … we can sue them and win money.” He has not explained just how he plans to do that.
I doubt Angela Merkel sees eye-to-eye with Donald Trump on most issues. She and he are certainly far apart on the subject of migrants seeking refuge. Turkey welcomed her last weekend, and she described that country’s decision to issue work permits to Syrian refugees as a “very brave step.” For his part, Trump has labeled Merkel’s own migrant policy as a “tragic mistake.”
Böhmermann, meanwhile, has decided to go off the air for a few weeks, announcing tongue-in-cheek on Facebook that he will take a trip to North Korea “to study freedom of the press.” I wonder how Kim Jong-un, who recently issued a ban on wearing jeans, will react to that posting.
This controversy over the German comedian, an example perhaps of the “abuse” Madison had in mind more than 200 years ago, will no doubt pass. Donald Trump, on the other hand, seems to be gathering steam, making no secret of his disdain for “the media.” In that regard, he has a lot of company. According to the Gallup Poll, Americans’ confidence in the media keeps going down to the point where the majority simply doesn’t trust the press.
Criticizing politicians may be risky in some places, but criticizing the press looks like good politics.