Fact check: Thomas Jefferson quote on free press, 'words of a tyrant,' is fake

Camille Caldera, USA TODAY

The claim: A meme purportedly quotes Thomas Jefferson and Donald Trump about the press

Since 1787, the concept of a free press has been enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which bars any law from "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

Now, some have taken to Facebook to share a meme created by Left Action contrasting quotes from President Thomas Jefferson and President Donald Trump on the subject.

To Jefferson, the meme attributes the quote, "When the speech condemns a free press, you are hearing the words of a tyrant."

To Trump, the meme attributes the quote, "The press is the enemy of the American people."

John Hlinko, the founder of Left Action, told USA TODAY that he removed the meme after he found out it contained a fake quote from Jefferson. But shared versions of that Left Action meme still exist on social media.

The alleged Jefferson quote has also appeared on Facebook by itself in other memes. The users who posted the memes have not responded to requests from USA TODAY for comment.

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Thomas Jefferson believed in a free press, but quote is fabricated

The quote the meme attributes to Jefferson is not a bonafide remark from the Founding Father.

The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia – a website maintained by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation – includes the line on its list of "spurious quotations."

"This quotation has not been found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson," the website reads. "Its earliest known appearance to date is a meme generated in late February 2017."

However, it is true that Jefferson was a staunch believer in the importance of a free press. His papers in the Library of Congress and National Archives include multiple quotes on the subject.

In 1786, for example, he wrote, "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."

In 1804, he also wrote, "Our first object should therefore be to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found is the freedom of the press."

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President Donald Trump on Dec. 5, 2020, in Valdosta, Ga.
President Donald Trump on Dec. 5, 2020, in Valdosta, Ga.

Donald Trump called 'FAKE NEWS ... the enemy of the American people' but the meme misquotes him

The quote the meme attributes to Trump is also inaccurate.

It is similar to a line that he wrote in on Twitter on Feb. 17, 2017.

"The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes , @NBCNews , @ABC , @CBS , @CNN ) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!" he wrote.

The quote in the meme substitutes the "the press" for the word "it."

But speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 24, 2017, Trump clarified that he only uses the label of "enemy of the people" for "fake news," not all media outlets, per the New York Times.

“A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are – they are the enemy of the people,” he said. “They’re very dishonest people."

"In covering my comments, the dishonest media did not explain that I called the fake news the enemy of the people – the fake news," he added. "They dropped off the word ‘fake.' And all of a sudden the story became the media is the enemy. They take the word ‘fake’ out."

Though the meme includes a misquote, Trump has repeatedly used the phrase "enemy of the people" to refer to large swaths of the press.

"Much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people and all the Dems ..." he wrote on Twitter in July 2018.

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Our rating: False

Based on our research, a meme that claims to quote Thomas Jefferson and Donald Trump about the press is FALSE. The quote attributed to Jefferson is not real, though it is true that he was a staunch believer in the freedom of the press. The quote attributed to Trump is a misquote. It is similar to a line he wrote on Twitter in February 2017, but inaccurate. Trump has said that he only refers to the "fake news" as the "enemy of the people," not all media outlets.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Thomas Jefferson quote on free press is fake