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Whereas freedom of the press and freedom of speech are both inalienable rights in our country, the same might not be said of every citizen--particularly members of the military per 10 U.S. Code § 888:

"Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct." (See the answer to Is there a law that requires allegiance or respect to the Office of the President of the United States?)

Such measures have been put in place to maintain military cohesiveness. But the same does not apply to the general public and the media.

Now we are all well aware of how presidential administrations in the past have fought a very public political battle of words with the media in the United States. The media is a very powerful entity with the power to sway public opinion--not just inform! To the public, these political battles between the media and the President may seem divisive--but to be fair, the media does seem to take political sides, downplaying one party and promoting another.

I'm not talking about an opposing political candidate taking swipes at the President and using the media as a vehicle--something for which I understand we already have political campaign regulations in place. No, I'm talking about the perfectly plausible case in which a media outlet itself (without outright endorsement from a specific political party or candidate) makes hostile reporting against the President a constant theme. Please, I'm not pointing fingers--I'm just pointing out that it can and has happened in order to set up the basis of my question.

With that in mind, and for our education, how is the President--as Commander In Chief of our armed forces--legally permitted to handle disagreements with the media? Is s/he also in fact fully entitled to defensively or preemptively discredit or promote media organizations publicly, despite holding office?

I am not asking for opinions on whether it's been done the right way or the wrong way by any present or previous administration. I am not at this time pushing for, nor asking for anyone to get on a bandwagon to push for, any changes in policy. My question is also NOT seeking to incite political debate. I just want to deal with the facts of what is legal today in terms of White House communications.

I want to understand what legally entitles a President to discredit or promote media organizations as s/he sees fit. And maybe the answer to that is simply that someone in the office of President keeps his/her full rights to free speech and free press as a citizen. If so, then just please confirm and point out to me how that's protected, whether by a Constitutional amendment, some simple article in the Bill of Rights, or whatever. That's all! Thanks.

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The answer is as simple as the fact that the President of the US is a civilian and citizen, and keeps his/her full rights to free speech and free press as guaranteed under the First Amendment. The military necessity exception is a somewhat surprising exception to the general proposition that you have a protected right to express any viewpoint whatsoever, but also is not relevant to POTUS who is not subject to UCMJ.

Just as a plain old citizen has the unfettered right to express ridiculous and fundamentally dangerous ideas, news media have the unfettered right to express ridiculous and fundamentally dangerous ideas, as do politicians including POTUS. Plain old citizens can be "punished" for their views by shunning, news media can be "punished" by customers unsubscribing, and politicians can be "punished" for their views by being voted out of office, or not being voted in. That is the only legal limit on expression of viewpoint possible in the US.

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  • Is this something we deduce by simple inference from the Bill of Rights and the presumed lack of legislation to constrain White House communications? – ShieldOfSalvation Apr 21 at 16:30
  • Only the former. Congress has no power to restrict the speech of the executive branch (just as POTUS has to power to silence Congress). – user6726 Apr 21 at 16:37
  • So what you are referring to is Amendment 1: "Congress shall make no law ...abridging the freedom of speech". (billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/bill-of-rights) And you mean that this applies to the President too and we all just need to respect that. – ShieldOfSalvation Apr 21 at 16:42
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    Yes-ish. A corollary of the 1st is that you are free to refuse to accept or respect this fact – complaining is mostly futile, at least as long as the 1st is still law. – user6726 Apr 21 at 16:59
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    I don't think that the analysis is as simple as that, but the conclusion is probably right. – ohwilleke Apr 22 at 0:01

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