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First Amendment Advocate: 'I Rise In Defense Of The Enemy Of The People'

An Illinois free speech advocate spoke in Normal on Wednesday and compared President Donald Trump's characterization of journalists as "scum" and "dirt" to tactics used by tyrannical dictators of the past. 

First Amendment Attorney Don Craven of Springfield spoke to central Illinois members of the American Civil Liberties Union gathered at the Normal Public Library.

Craven said, during his last appearance in Bloomington-Normal five months ago, he jokingly told a group of attorneys, "I rise in defense of the enemy of the people." He said he thought it was a cute attention getter. Wednesday night in Normal, Craven said the phrase has taken on new meaning.

"I'm not sure that remark was either cute or funny."

Craven said Trump's frequent criticisms of the media have "increased my disdain for the Trump administration, and its attacks on free speech and a free press have grown tremendously." He compared the president's assault on the media to those of Nazi Germany and 19th century Chinese emperors.

Credit Staff

Historical Context

Craven noted the historical roles of journalists as "community historians" and outlined the five basic freedoms granted by the First Amendment: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom to petition the government. 

After crediting founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and 20th century President Ronald Reagan for defending free speech, Craven said things have deteriorated mightily. 

"Our current president as a consistent practice works to intimidate journalists who question his actions and decisions, or will provide any scrutiny of his administration. And this is simply for journalists who are doing their job, and doing their job correctly," Craven said. 

He added Trump has figured out the political process and made it all about himself, constantly craving attention. Craven cautioned against Trump's consistent plea to his base and the public that, "what you are seeing, reading and hearing is not happening. It's 'fake news.'" Craven said that's simply not the case. 


Media Bears Some Responsibility

Craven said media outlets are partly to blame for being too slow to adapt to technological and cultural changes to how news is consumed. He said bloggers and social media savvy users stepped in to fill a vacuum and reduce the news cycle to a "constantly-on" setting.  

Craven challenged the media to do a better job of staking out its role in society. 

"We often just assume that everybody knows what we do. But we need to renew with some vigor our efforts to claim our spot within that structure and within society. And, damn us for that failure. It's self-imposed."

He noted newsroom sizes have shrunk over the past 25 years, due in large part to media consolidation. Fewer reporters are expected to cover more stories on a variety of platforms. 

"The statehouse bureau at the state capitol in Springfield housed 35 reporters a few years ago. Today that number is three," Craven said.

Craven has long represented the interests of media organizations such as the Illinois Press Association, Illinois Broadcasters Association, and the Illinois News Broadcasters Association. 

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Willis is a Bloomington, IL, native. During his senior year at Bloomington High School, he finished third in the "Radio Speaking" division of the state speech contest, the only year he competed.
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