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Editorial: First Amendment is under attack by newsprint tariffs

Members of Congress understand the danger. It’s not just to individual newspapers or to the communities they serve. The threat posed by the unwarranted tariff on newsprint is to the First Amendment, itself. It’s an attack on freedom of the press and it’s creating damaging stresses on the country’s newspapers, which are already under severe financial strain.

Thus, it was encouraging that nearly 20 members of Congress, representing every region of the United States, made a point of warning the International Trade Commission that the Trump administration’s tariff is a box-cutter at the throat of democracy. Republicans, Democrats and an independent spoke to the commission, going out of their way to sound the alarm on behalf not just of newspapers, but the national interest.

Consider Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who found himself surprised by his comments. “I never thought I was going to say some of the things I’m going to say,” he said, as he started to speak. “The threat of losing the newspaper in this country is a tremendous threat to the First Amendment.”

The reason, he made clear, is that printed newspapers remain integral to “our democratic governance and civic life.”

“At the local, regional and national level, these papers help us understand and provide necessary context to the events unfolding here at home and across the globe,” he said.

The tariff was imposed at the urging of a single American paper mill and against the wishes of its competitors and even the industry’s trade group. And while it has benefited that plant, North Pacific Paper Co. in Washington state, it is undermining newspapers around the country, including Western New York, as Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, made clear to the commission.

Printers and publisher around New York have been forced to take “severe cost-cutting measures” because of the tariff, he said, noting that this newspaper has seen newsprint costs sore by $600,000 per month as prices for Canadian newsprint spiked up to 30 percent. “The Buffalo News is facing an untenable situation,” he said.

The tariff, as Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., observes in today’s Another Voice column, affects a specialty paper that many newspapers, especially those in the east, must import from Canada to avoid what would otherwise be exorbitant transportation costs. In addition, he notes, the tariff “will not help producers here, but it will drive up the cost of this vital ingredient for struggling papers and the whole supply chain, forcing the loss of both American jobs and local papers.”

What is more, he noted, North Pacific Paper, also known as NORPAC, misstated the causes of its financial stresses, blaming Canadian subsidies rather than the actual cause: “the shift to digital media.” That change has ruptured the centuries-old business model of the entire newspaper industry.

Yet the Trump administration cavalierly imposed the tariff that almost no one wanted and, in so doing, threatened countless more jobs than it created or helped to protect at a single paper mill. Worse – and to the broader, overarching point – it risks fracturing the Constitution’s First Amendment pillar, posing a risk to Americans’ fundamental right to know what is happening in their school districts and city halls and their state and federal governments. Even though he had his own quarrel with an aggressive press, Thomas Jefferson understood the issue. If the choice were between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Whether intended or not, the tariff is choice for the former.

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