David Lat, a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey, analyzed President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media from a legal perspective at Cornell on Tuesday evening, saying Trump could have a significant influence on how the public perceives the media but is unlikely to add legal restrictions to news outlets.
Lat, who founded the legal commentary blog Above the Law, said the political climate in the last year has led to a wider range of views on what speech the First Amendment protects.
The Yale Law School graduate, who was an assistant prosecutor in Newark before transitioning to writing, said Trump’s repeated derision of media as “fake news” is largely bluster.
The president does not have the power to make direct, drastic changes to the First Amendment’s protections because the process of altering the Constitution is extremely slow and requires a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of Congress or at a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of states.
“It would be very difficult for Trump to do anything about the media and the First Amendment despite his obvious distaste for aspects of media,” Lat said.
Lat said that even when sharing a meal with friends or relatives, it is hard to discuss freedom of expression issues because “most individuals do not see eye to eye.”
He also said that the law as it is enforced is not always the same as the law written in legal texts.
“… What happens in the real world is not just about what’s on the books,” Lat said. “It’s also about norms, values, morals and public opinion.”
“One area where I do think Trump could be significant is changing public opinion — or changing norms and values — with respect to the media and freedom of the press.”
The Cornell Law School Federalist Society, a conservative and libertarian organization of lawyers, law students and legal professors who are dedicated to the free exchange of ideas, hosted Lat.
Bennett Hampilos J.D. ’19, president of the Cornell Federalist Society, said the society tries to host speakers who hold unique perspectives on mainstream issues.
“Events like this are important because … we are able to bring in speakers who may have unpopular beliefs in more liberal or progressive circles,” Hampilos said. “We give them an opportunity and a venue and they get to express their ideas.”
Hampilos explained that hosting such events relies on attending a campus that supports the free and open exchange of ideas.
“If you don’t come into contact with people on a regular basis who have differing opinions than you do, then you tend to develop stereotypes and judge them ahead of time,” Hampilos said, later adding: “I hope by bringing in speakers who converse with each other in a civil way, we can encourage a more civil discourse and lead to healthier relationships among students.”