There was a chilling moment on CNN this week in an interview of former FBI Director James Comey, by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. In the middle of the interview, Amanpour asked Comey if he had wished the FBI “shut down” President Donald Trump’s “hate speech” during the 2016 presidential election. Next week I will be debating an advocate of such speech codes and the criminalization of hate speech at Rice University. This was a particularly revealing moment as one of the top personalities at CNN pressed the former head of the FBI on why he did not simply shutdown Trump’s speeches as hate speech. Amanpour has been an outspoken critic of Trump but this reflect more of the diminishing European view of free speech.
We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in France (here and here and here and here and here and here and here) and England ( here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). There are encroachments appearing in the United States, particularly on college campuses. Notably, the media celebrated the speech of French President Emmanuel Macron before Congress where he called on the United States to follow the model of Europe on hate speech.
Amanpour pressed Comey on why he did not simply send agents to shut up Trump: “Of course, ‘Lock Her Up’ was a feature of the 2016 Trump campaign. Do you in, retrospect, wish that people like yourself, the head of the FBI, the people in charge of law and order had shut down that language, that it was dangerous potentially, that it could have created violence, that it kind of is hate speech? Should that have been allowed?”
While I have been critical of Comey’s conduct during and after his stint as FBI Director, I was not surprised by his immediate and correct statement of the law: “That’s not a role for government to play. The beauty of this country is people can say what they want even if it’s misleading and it’s demagoguery.” Amanpour’s question succeeded in showing not just an unbridled bias against Trump but an unnerving view of free speech. In the United States, we are not “allowed” to speak by the discretion of the government.
It was an embarrassing moment for CNN which has been criticized for his relentless criticism of Trump and the airing of legal experts who spent the last two years assuring viewers that criminal acts by Trump were already well established. What was ironic is that CNN has (correctly) aired criticism of Trump who has called for new legal measures to punish those who voice what he calls “fake news.” At least Trump has been largely calling for civil not criminal penalties. Here was one of CNN top figures treating the criminalization of speech as a discretionary power of the government.
CNN has done nothing to correct the record that Amanpour’s chillingly anti-free speech message was not shared by the network.
The question was a disgrace for any news organization. CNN constantly calls for the protection of the free press with its promotion series “This is an apple.” Yes, that is an apple and Amanpour’s comments are anti-free speech. Perhaps CNN can call that fact for what it is.