“Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Gene Fowler, American journalist
Anyone whose job is or involves creative writing will agree with Gene Fowler. I’ve cranked out more than 200 of these columns over the years and I can tell you that staring at my computer monitor when the only thing on the screen is a blinking cursor—the days of paper and pen having disappeared long ago—is a frightening and frustrating experience.
Deciding what to write about is among the most difficult challenges I face. Some weeks my brain is devoid of possible topics, others my cranium is stuffed with so much flotsam and jetsam you’d need a Coast Guard icebreaker to cut through it. This week proved to be the latter because as I sat down and hovered my hands over the keyboard a number of my favorite subjects were bouncing around in my nugget: I decided to write about two of them: Donald Trump and the First Amendment.
Let’s jump in.
As most of you know, Donald Trump is embroiled in a dizzying array of legal proceedings: a civil lawsuit in New York involving allegations the former president deceived banks, insurers and others by exaggerating the value of his assets, and four pending criminal trials related to charges that he engaged in a conspiracy to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election, mishandled classified documents, paid hush money to coverup extramarital affairs, and violated Georgia’s anti-racketeering laws by plotting to overturn his loss in the state’s 2020 presidential contest.
All the cases are enthralling because this is the first time in history a former occupant of the Oval Office has been indicted on criminal charges, but the civil fraud and federal election interference proceeding are particularly fascinating because the judges presiding over them have issued gag orders against Mr. Trump. As my regular readers know, while I’m a huge fan of the First Amendment, I do recognize that the courts may limit free speech. For example, there is this well-known passage written by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1919:
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic… The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger…
Judges are permitted to issue gag orders if they believe there is a credible fear that jurors may be swayed by statements in the media or online, if people involved in the case could be threatened or harassed, or if confidential information could become public.
Judge Arthur Engoron, the New York State judge overseeing the civil lawsuit, told all participants in the case not to smear court personnel and warned that violations would trigger serious sanctions. Shortly after the trial began on October 2 Mr. Trump posted a photo of Allison Greenfield, the judge’s principal law clerk on Truth Social, his social media platform and said it was “disgraceful” that she was working in the courtroom. The judge reacted by slapping a gag order on the former president who has violated it twice and been fined a total of $15,000.
Given the fact the Mr. Trump’s ardent supporters have a proven record of attacking people who offend him, the judge’s reaction was at the very least prudent and met the standard of preventing or in the case of the former president attempting to prevent him from making public statements that could cause harm Ms. Greenfield.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan who is presiding over the election interference case imposed a partial gag order on Trump after special counsel Jack Smith and his prosecutors argued that the ex-president’s statements about the case risked prejudicing the trial. Mr. Trump has often railed against the judge, Smith and his staff, the jury pool in Washington, D.C where the case is being tried, and potential witnesses.
The order, which is now on hold pending an appeal by Mr. Tump’s attorneys, bars him and other parties in the case from making public statements about Smith, the defense counsel, members of the court or any of their staffers. They are also prohibited from targeting “any reasonably foreseeable witness or the substance of their testimony.”
Interestingly, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a friend of the court brief in which they argue that the order is too vague, broad, and is not sufficiently justified. In a press release ACLU executive director Anthony Romero noted that “No modern-day president did more damage to civil liberties and civil rights than President Trump. “But if we allow his free speech rights to be abridged, we know that other unpopular voices — even ones we agree with — will also be silenced.”
In their brief the ACLU said Trump has made many “patently false” statements that have “caused great harm to countless individuals,” but he “retains a First Amendment right to speak, and the rest of us retain a right to hear what he has to say.” They also assert that any restraint on the former president’s speech must be “precisely defined and narrowly tailored,” and concluded that Judge Chutkan’s order “fails that test.”
Is the ACLU right? I tend to object to prior restraint, and while Mr. Trump has in the past made troubling statements, in my opinion he has yet to cross the line in this case. Of course, there’s still plenty of time, the trial is not scheduled to begin until March 2024.