Echoing President Trump, Reince Priebus claimed the administration is interested in revising the country's libel laws to make it possible to sue unfavorable press outlets. When asked, Priebus even affirmed the possibility of amending the Constitution to limit press protections.
This is a remarkably negative sign of the administration's respect for a free press. The fact that the proposal is only rhetorical so far does not lessen the danger. In fact, its immediate aim is probably not to promote an actual policy effort to change free press laws. Rather, the proposal appears to serve as a shot across the bow, letting press outlets know that the administration is willing to push back aggressively against unfriendly coverage. Needless to say, this fits a repeated pattern of harsh media criticism by Trump himself.
A common pattern in the early stages of democratic decline is that opposition is gradually curtailed not by outright making opposition illegal, but by leaders communicating that it will come at a cost. Budding autocrats try to establish what scholars call a "punishment regime," in which opposition is legally allowed, but is personally costly.
In early-2000s Venezuela, for instance, a public list mysteriously appeared detailing the names and addresses of citizens who signed a recall of Hugo Chavez. Signers found themselves blackballed from government work and some state benefits. By 2004, Venezuela passed a law allowing the state to suspend television stations that “promote, defend, or incite breaches of public order or that are contrary to the security of the nation.” The law didn't need to be enforced much for stations to quickly adjust to more pro-Chavez coverage.
There are few signs so far of such a strategy succeeding in the U.S., but this doesn't mean the danger isn't real. Even rhetorical moves and subtle shifts in incentives can slowly erode a critical press.
Michael K. Miller is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University.