Impeachment and Attacking the Freedom of the Press: A Lesson from History

April 1 marks the anniversary of the impeachment of a federal judge who was impeached nearly a century ago for misconduct that included abusing his power to attack the press. As we explained in The Constitution Demands It: The Case for the Impeachment of Donald Trump, one major reason for the House of Representatives not to outsource all impeachment investigations to a criminal prosecutor is that impeachable conduct is broader than just criminal offenses. Among other abuses of office, President Trump’s pattern of threats to the freedom of the press—not just his frequent use of the Stalinesque epithet “enemy of the people,” but also his efforts to use of executive power to punish his critics—rises to the level of an impeachable offense.

This blog post for the 93rd anniversary of the impeachment of Judge George English was drafted by Isaac Snow, a high school student from Maryland and a volunteer for Free Speech For People.


April 1 is the 93rd anniversary of the impeachment of Judge George English, and it offers some surprising lessons for the Trump presidency.

George English was a judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Illinois from his nomination and confirmation in 1918 until his impeachment and subsequent resignation in 1926. The U.S. House of Representatives impeached English on five counts: tyranny and oppression in office and abuse of power, partiality and favoritism, improper and unlawful conduct having to do with a “bankruptcy ring,” improper handling of bankruptcy and other funds, and general misbehavior and misconduct in office. The charges of tyranny, oppression, and abuse of power come with six specific accusations. The first article of impeachment specifically included “unlawfully summoning an editor of the East St. Louis Journal and a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and in angry and abusive language threatening them with imprisonment if they published truthful facts …; and unlawfully summoning the publisher of the Carbondale Free Press and threatening to imprison him for printing an editorial and some handbills.”

Judge English’s impeachment, although not well known today, can provide us with valuable lessons that we can apply to the potential impeachment of President Donald Trump. English’s impeachment, along with many others, shows how the constitutional phrase “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” not only encompasses prosecutable crimes but also non-criminal abuses of power that endanger the country. This is important because many of Trump’s potentially impeachable offenses fall into this category. In particular, Judge English’s impeachment demonstrates that threatening the press and endangering the freedom of the press, a First Amendment right, can be an impeachable offense.  

Put those two together and we have a ground for the impeachment of President Trump: he has repeatedly violated and undermined the freedom of the press. He labels certain media outlets as “fake, disgusting news” and his White House suspended CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press credential just for asking challenging questions during a press conference. Trump has also tried to use his official power to attack critical press. He opposed and tried to block a merger between AT&T and Time Warner simply because Time Warner is the parent company of CNN, whose coverage he dislikes. He has also gone after Amazon multiple times, going as far as ordering the US Postal Service to review its rates for the online shopping giant, because Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos also owns one of Trump’s biggest critics in the media, the Washington Post. Again and again, Trump has attacked the press as the “enemy of the people,” in the press, undermining and in some cases directly violating the First Amendment and putting the country in danger.

When Trump was sworn into office, he swore that he would “faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of [his] ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” But he’s done the exact opposite. He’s used his power for personal benefit. He’s abused his power against his enemies like no other president. He has undermined the fundamental values of the country and of democracy over and over. There’s no doubt that his actions provide more than enough grounds for impeachment, and it’s time. Congress must not let Trump’s actions set precedents for future presidents. The House must launch an immediate impeachment investigation.


Learn more about undermining the freedom of the press as an impeachable offense:

Contact your Member of Congress and urge them to support H. Res. 257, which would authorize the House Judiciary Committee to begin an impeachment investigation.

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