Yesterday, Charged with Assaulting a Reporter; Today, Charged with Defending the Constitution

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By Caitlin Borgmann and Brian Hauss

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska had it right: “If the First Amendment means anything, it means you can’t body-slam a journalist.”

Sadly, that lesson seems to be lost on some of Sen. Sasse’s colleagues. On Wednesday, Greg Gianforte was charged with assaulting a Guardian reporter while campaigning for Montana’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Yesterday, he won that seat, and he’ll now also be charged with defending the Constitution and its promise of ensuring a free and vibrant press.

The reporter, Ben Jacobs, approached Gianforte at a campaign rally in Bozeman with a question about the Congressional Budget Office’s assessment of the American Health Care Act. Gianforte, who has been dogged by questions about his stance on the bill throughout his campaign, apparently responded with violence. According to Jacobs himself, and confirmed by Fox news reporters who witnessed the event, Gianforte put his hands around Jacobs’ throat, threw him to the ground, and repeatedly punched him, all the while yelling, “Get the hell out of here!” Jacobs’ audio recording of the event is chilling.

This was not an isolated incident. Throughout Gianforte’s campaign, he has been hostile toward the media. The Helena Independent Record wrote in an editorial piece yesterday that Gianforte “has encouraged his supporters to boycott certain newspapers, singled out a reporter in a room to point out that he was outnumbered, and even made a joke out of the notion of choking a news writer.” Newspapers that endorsed Gianforte despite this record of hostility — including the Independent Record, the Missoulian, and the Billings Gazette — all rescinded their endorsements after the attack.

Recently, American officials have indulged an extremely disturbing predilection for intimidating members of the press. To take just a few examples: Earlier this month, a reporter in West Virginia was arrested for asking questions about the AHCA to two senior government officials in the state capitol. An Alaska state senator reportedly slapped a journalist over a story he didn’t like. Last week, Federal Communications Commission security personnel pinned a reporter to the wall, and then they proceeded to stalk him out of the building for trying to ask a commissioner a question after a public hearing. Former House Member Michael Grimm was filmed threatening to throw a reporter off a balcony and “break [him] in half.” And journalists covering the protests of President Trump’s inauguration were arrested and charged with felony rioting.

Unfortunately, our president has not been helpful in modeling respect for an independent media. President Trump, who famously called the press “the enemy of the people,” has a well-known penchant for calling out reporters in the midst of hostile rallies. Trump’s aide, Corey Lewandowski, was recorded grabbing and yanking a reporter at a press conference — disproving Trump’s suggestion that she fabricated the incident.

We must hold our elected officials to a higher standard. When members of Congress take office, they swear an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same,” and to “faithfully discharge the duties” of their office. Those are not empty words, but a promise to uphold the ideals on which this country was founded. Freedom of the press, which is expressly protected by the First Amendment, is one of those ideals. The press has historically served as an unofficial “check” in our system of checks and balances — think Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, warrantless wiretaps, and, of course, Trump — holding those in power accountable for their actions. An attack on the press is an attack on our constitutional democracy.

If we’re going to entrust public officials with our rights and freedoms, they need to prove that they will uphold their oath. That means not only respecting but defending a free press. If politicians can’t live up to their word, we’ll need to hold them accountable. Thankfully, we still have many superb journalists who are up to the task.

Caitlin Borgmann is the Executive Director of ACLU of Montana and Brian Hauss is Staff Attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.



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12 thoughts on “Yesterday, Charged with Assaulting a Reporter; Today, Charged with Defending the Constitution”

  1. Tia Will

    I find another troubling aspect to these attacks in addition to the lack of respect for freedom of the press. That is the discrepancy between what these lawmakers are advocating for the remainder of the populace and how they feel their support for Gianforte. Current AG Sessions is promoting, supported by the GOP, maximizing charges and jail/prison terms for what he perceives as criminals. However, the GOP is applauding a lukewarm “apology” from Gianforte issued only after his win and after a false explanation put forth by his campaign. To me, this was nothing but a criminal act and if the GOP really believes in its “law and order approach”, a more appropriate place for Gianforte would seen to be either in confinement or in a mandated anger management program followed up with community service if one believes in restorative justice. Where he most certainly does not belong if one believes in equality under the law, is in Congress.

    1. Don Shor

      The guy has admitted it and there were eye witnesses, so I’m not really sure what your point is. Do you have some doubt about what happened?

    2. Tia Will

      Jim

      He has admitted and is demonstrated to be factually, not legally guilty. Innocence until proven guilty is a legal construct which is superseded by his own admission.

  2. Keith O

    I’m not saying I condone what Gianforte did but the press as a whole has become so anti-conservative and unfair that voters see through it.  I don’t think something like what Gianforte did bothers them as much as it might of years ago when the press was more neutral.

    1. Tia Will

      Keith

      Oh for heaven’s sake. The news is full stories about minority crime, terrorist events, and attacks on police. And you see it as “so.. unfair” when it reports on an assault on a reporter by a candidate who admits to what he did.  Really !

      1. Keith O

        I’m referring to the one-sided unfair reporting being directed at virtually every conservative politician these days.  Open your eyes and ears, there’s no denying it.

  3. John Hobbs

    “I’m not saying I condone what Gianforte did”

    No, that would break cover and require the moral fortitude Trump and his plug uglies so brazenly lack’

    The lack of real disgust and calls for recall from Republicans over this disturbs me greatly. I guess the party of Henry Cabot Lodge, George Romney , Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits was just too inclusive for the oligarchists.

    This did not surprise me much. These Trump guys are all thugs.

  4. Tia Will

    These Trump guys are all thugs.”

    I would have seen this as hyperbole until I watched the tapes of peaceful protestors being beaten, one woman into unconsciousness, by 45’s good friend Erdogan’s supporters, with Erdogan in a separate clip seen watching the beatings approvingly.

    This combined with 45’s rhetoric about “roughing up” the press and others that did not agree with him, convinces me that this may be closer to a factual statement than I would like to admit.

     

    1. Keith O

      until I watched the tapes of peaceful protestors being beaten

      Oh, you must of been watching tapes of Trump supporters getting beaten prior to and after the election?

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