Rachel Maddow’s Trump tax return hysteria has proven to be anti-climatic, and Trump supporters on social media are blasting the MSNBC anchor for going to the extreme of breaking the law for what they believe was a spoof for ratings. Maddow insisted that the First Amendment allows her the right to publicize Donald Trump’s tax documents, so who’s right and who’s wrong?
Also on the debate block is the fact that once the White House got word that Maddow was going to be sharing President Trump’s 2005 tax returns, they got the jump on her and published it themselves. This brings into question if it was illegal for Donald Trump to publish his own tax returns. If publicizing them is illegal, does it matter who’s behind it?
The issue of the legality of tax record publication came into question during the 2016 election season when the New York Times got ahold of Trump tax documents and published them for the public to see.
The Cato Institute went to work answering this question after the Times incident. According to their article, there exists a statute declaring that on the federal level, publishing tax returns without first acquiring permission from the taxpayer of those returns is against the law. However, in the case of the Times, Trump’s records were state level documents from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, hence a federal statute does not apply.
The Trump tax returns shared with the world by Rachel Maddow, however, were federal in nature, and it’s evident that she didn’t seek prior approval from Trump, otherwise he wouldn’t have felt the need to publish them himself before her show aired.
According to this statute, it was not illegal for Trump to publish his own tax returns, as he had only to seek permission from himself to do it.
There’s more to this story, though. The Washington Post reports that Maddow received Trump’s tax returns from a man named David Johnston, who claimed that he acquired the documents via the United States Postal Service and that he did not ask for them in advance. The same was said by Susanne Craig, the person responsible for providing the New York Times with Trump’s state level tax returns.
The question remains: Does freedom of speech override the governmental statute aimed to stop others from publishing your tax returns?
According to Cornell University Law School, the “freedom of expression” part of the First Amendment “allows individuals to express themselves without interference or constraint by the government.”
Freedom of the press is a part of the First Amendment as well, and its purpose is to let citizens communicate personal expression through the mediums of “publication and dissemination.” It also specifies that freedom of the press does not enable journalists to work outside the law.
To “disseminate” means to share information with others, which is technically what Rachel Maddow was doing by publicizing Donald Trump’s tax documentation.
There is, however, a certain kind of speech the First Amendment does not uphold. Promotion of illicit activities is not covered by the First Amendment, but even then only in some cases. Specifically, freedom of speech “allows punishment only of subversive advocacy calculated to produce ‘imminent lawless action’ and which is likely to produce such action.”
Was Rachel Maddow engaging in “subversive advocacy”? By definition, yes. Was it intended to yield “imminent lawless action”? That’s harder to answer. Was there a good chance the Trump tax return information provided by Maddow was going to spark imminent lawless action? Difficult to say.
If Maddow had released a bombshell, who’s to say mass hysteria by way of violent rioting wouldn’t have ensued? It it had been revealed that Donald Trump seriously broke the law while filing his 2005 taxes, would there have been pandemonium in the streets of America?
There is a great deal more to this than meets the eye. It looks as if Rachel Maddow did violate a governmental statute by publishing someone else’s federal tax documents without prior approval, but according to the First Amendment, she was within her right to share the tax return as long as she didn’t condone forthcoming violence by doing so.
Maddow’s Trump tax return announcement didn’t turn out to be what Trump dissenters would have liked it to be, but according to what we’ve discussed here, it looks like the MSNBC host probably didn’t break the law in her quest to reveal wrongdoings by the president.
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