In a suit filed Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan, the PEN American Center (PEN America) alleges that “official acts” by President Donald Trump have “violated the First Amendment and his oath to uphold the Constitution.”
Breaking: PEN America sues Trump over claimed retaliatory actions against media organizations. Lawsuit cites Trump’s attacks on the Post (re: Amazon), CNN (re: merger), and NBC (re: broadcast license). https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5002912-PEN-v-Trump-Complaint.html …
Breaking: PEN America sues Trump over claimed retaliatory actions against media organizations. Lawsuit cites Trump's attacks on the Post (re: Amazon), CNN (re: merger), and NBC (re: broadcast license). https://t.co/LWJwSrLacI pic.twitter.com/ZOC7ILnoRv
— Chris Geidner (@chrisgeidner) October 16, 2018
The group is claiming that Trump’s frequent threats and hostile acts toward journalists and the media are illegal.
Because of the president, nasty rhetoric, insults and threats of violence have become the norm for political reporters and commentators.
The group maintains that even though the president has free-speech rights just like anyone else, not all speech is protected by the Constitution. When Trump calls the news media “the enemy of the American people” and when he claims that truthful reports are “fake news” he is exercising his rights under the First Amendment.
But the First Amendment does not protect all speech. Trump can launch verbal tirades against the press, but he cannot use the powers of his office to suppress or punish speech he doesn’t like.
So by proposing government retribution against news outlets and reporters Trump has crossed the line.
Even worse, in some cases he has caused the executive branch of the federal government to act on his demands.
This goes beyond mere speech. He is actually using the power of his office to punish or suppress legally protected speech by others.
Clearly what he is doing is repressing the First Amendment rights of others, in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Presidents are legally allowed to mock and demean the press, but they are not free to use the power of government to restrict the rights of the free media.
That is why the coalition of free speech advocates has brought the new lawsuit against the president. The coalition includes PEN America (an organization of writers that defends free expression), the nonprofit organization Protect Democracy and the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Clinic.
The lawsuit filed in federal court is seeking a court order to direct President Trump to not to use the power and authority of his office to stifle freedom of the press.
The lawsuit is based on a 2015 judicial opinion by the Seventh Circuit which states that:
“a public official who tries to shut down an avenue of expression of ideas and opinions through actual or threatened imposition of government power or sanction is violating the First Amendment.”
In addition, there was a 2003 Second Circuit opinion which found a First Amendment violation when a government official’s statements “can reasonably be interpreted as intimating that some form of punishment or adverse regulatory action will follow the failure to accede to the official’s request.’”
The group claims that President Trump has engaged repeatedly in the exact kind of behavior which the courts have found unlawful.
The lawsuit asks that Trump be enjoined from “directing or ordering any officer, employee, agency, or other agent or instrumentality of the United States government to take any action against any person or entity with intent to retaliate against, intimidate, or otherwise constrain speech critical of him or his Administration.”
The organization seeks no money beyond “costs, including attorneys’ fees,” and other “relief as the Court deems just and proper.”
Concerning the viability of the lawsuit, David A. Schulz, co-director of the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, said:
“We wouldn’t be filing this lawsuit if we didn’t think it would be meritorious. There is so much evidence of the president’s motives.”
Even if the group doesn’t win this particular lawsuit one good outcome might be that President Trump in the future will change his behavior and stop threatening to take action against the media which restricts and stifles freedom of the press.
I am a lifelong Democrat with a passion for social justice and progressive issues. I have degrees in writing, economics and law from the University of Iowa.