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EDITORIAL: Donald Trump’s latest assault on American free speech

Donald Trump

President Donald Trump speak to reporters before leaving the White House in Washington. | AP photo

What do the following three actions by President Donald Trump have in common?

• Last month, Trump vaguely threatened government censorship — not for the first time — against Saturday Night Live because he does not like the way the show mocks him. It is “very unfair,” he said, “and should be looked into.”

• Last year, the president argued that any NFL football player who took a knee during the national anthem to call attention to the problem of police violence against black people was a “son of a bitch” who should be fired.

• Last weekend, the president vaguely warned that he might issue an executive order withholding federal funds from any university that fails, in his opinion, to protect free speech for conservatives.

The common denominator is obvious: Trump is out to help Trump. As always. He could not care less about higher ideals, such as those protected by the First Amendment.

Trump opposes free speech that works against him and favors free speech that works for him, and most of all he wants to stir up his MAGA-hat fans, or at least those who slept through civics class.

Trump’s executive order would put the White House in the business of deciding what’s sufficient free speech and what’s not, which is precisely the opposite of protecting free speech. It is government censorship. Under another president — a more lefty chief executive — it might easily cut the other way.

Whenever there’s another flap about free speech on campus, we find ourselves looking to see what the University of Chicago has to say. The university has been a national leader in taking the right stand even when it’s hard, which of course is when it matters most.

Three years ago, a University of Chicago official sent a letter to all incoming freshmen warning that the university puts freedom of expression above tender feelings. The university rejected the concept of issuing “trigger warnings” about sensitive topics in classes, the letter warned, and it wasn’t big on “safe spaces” to which students could flee.

A year ago, the university’s leadership defended the right of Steve Bannon, the hard-right nationalist, to speak on campus at the invitation of a student group, despite a letter of protest from more than 1,000 former students.

And what does the administration of the University of Chicago have to say about Trump’s latest threat?

It would be a “grave error,” President Robert Zimmer wrote in a campus email. “This would open the door to any number of troubling policies over time that the federal government, whatever the political party involved, might adopt on such matters. It makes the government, with all its power and authority, a party to defining the very nature of discussion on campus.”

Trump has no business messing with the First Amendment by executive order, and we hope Saturday Night Live will mock him thoroughly for suggesting otherwise.

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