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The First Amendment in Trump's America

Since he has taken office, Trump has made every effort to silence those who disagree with him. He claims mainstream media outlets like CNN and the New York Times are spreading “fake news” and argues that citizens protesting against him are being paid to do so. For students looking to stay informed and express their views, it can be hard to know what to do about these threats to the First Amendment. The Gavel spoke with Boston College professors to hear their thoughts on these issues and discuss what citizens, and students in particular, should be doing in response.

Professor Martha Bayles recently wrote an article for The Boston Globe in which she discussed the threat facing the media today. Both in her article and in talking to The Gavel, she took a step back from President Trump to examine the greater issues at play.

Says Bayles, “The problem we have with our news media set the stage for Mr. Trump and allowed him to do what he does...if he went away everything wouldn’t be fine.”

She points out that in a time where many Americans don’t believe the media is credible and honest, it can be hard for independent news sources to maintain the readership and the revenue they need. She argues, “The independence and integrity of journalism and its credibility, which is crucial, is all very fragile because even in this country it’s unclear how this type of journalism will sustain itself.”

When it comes to BC’s campus, the professors were in agreement that students should seek the true and objective information by staying up-to-date with credible, independent media.

To Bayles, this means that young people should take a step back from their social media feeds and familiarize themselves with long-established media outlets.

She believes that “for young people, it’s important to know what you’re reading and become familiar with the legacy media, the major newspapers, and have a certain regard for the legacy media because they know what they’re doing.”

Professor Brett Ingram gave similar advice, suggesting that “students should spend at least 20-30 minutes a day reading the front pages of reputable and rigorously researched news sources such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe, both of which are available for free, every day, all over campus.”

Professor Marcus Breen summarizes the issue well, asserting that “students and the general public can do what all well-educated citizens should do, seek the truth, explore the range of options for news and information sources and not be cowered by bullies whose currency is a perverse amalgam of fear, uncertainty and chaos.”

As students search for credible information from the free press, the issue of free speech must also be addressed.

In recent weeks, freedom of speech has been a hotly contested topic on college campuses. At UC Berkeley and Middlebury College, far-right writers set to speak on campus were met with violent protests, ultimately forcing their scheduled events to be cancelled.

These protests occurred based on the belief that those with hateful and bigoted opinions should have no platform to speak on an inclusive college campus. While it’s extremely important not to condone hateful views, a strong argument can be made that hearing all points of view, even contentious ones, is necessary to a productive dialogue. As protesters silence unpopular opinions like these, others feel justified in doing the same. As a result, the political situation becomes even more polarized on campuses and throughout the country, and citizens’ rights to freedom of speech are increasingly suppressed.

Professors Brett Ingram and Ken Kersch stress that this hostile political climate must be countered with constructive debate on both sides of the aisle.

Says Ingram, “I'm deeply concerned that students and professors may begin to shy away from direct engagement with sensitive topics, and instead seek refuge in the safety of their partisan camps, for fear that uttering the wrong word or opinion will get them ostracized, punished, or fired.”

Kersch echoes Ingram’s remarks, saying that “students and faculty should recommit themselves to open and productive political and intellectual dialogue.”

With a tinge of optimism, he adds, “If they can do that, the nation’s loss may at least be the campus’s gain.”

According to Breen, “The threat to free speech is really only that, a threat. There is no reason to cower in front of a threat such as the one to free speech.” On a college campus, this means respecting other’s rights to express their views even when their views are unpopular ones.  

Ultimately, students can fight for First Amendment rights on a local level, by seeking true and credible information from reliable news sources and engaging in productive dialogues, even with those they disagree with. While Trump’s actions may call these fundamental rights into question, ensuring that they are upheld in institutions of learning and intellectual conversation, such as BC, is a major step in the right direction.

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