Trump Time Capsule #77: 'Freedom for the Thought We Hate'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This morning, from Donald Trump:

Actually, that’s a pretty good working definition of what freedom of the press is, and by extension freedom of speech as well.

If a statement is “completely false,” and personally damaging and malicious, there is the remedy of libel law. But if a statement is “complete false” in that it runs against your own beliefs or evident facts—for instance, a claim that the current president is a “founder of ISIS” or was born in Kenya—free societies place long-term faith in the concept of the marketplace of ideas. They are built as well on the belief that in diverse democracies people will have to put up with views contrary to their own. (Yes, I do realize that there are different, more permissive legal standards for false statements about public figures.)

All politicians end up resenting the press, while also courting and relying on it. I am not aware of any other president or major-party nominee who has used air-quotes around “freedom of the press” or publicly made arguments about its limits similar to this latest one from Trump, with 85 days to go until the election.

I am aware, though, of some other thoughts on this theme:

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in United States v. Schwimmer, 1929:

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought-not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.

Justice Louis Brandeis, in Whitney v. California, 1927:

If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

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This quote from Oscar Wilde, unlike those from Holmes and Brandeis, could well be apocryphal, or in Trump’s terms “completely false.” But it has a certain truthy aptness right now:

I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.