During his campaign, Donald Trump alarmed First Amendment supporters with statements about curtailing freedom of the press, revising libel law, punishing flag burning and retaliation against critics, displaying ignorance about the First Amendment and disdain for the value of free speech and transparency in democratic government.
As an organization committed to free speech, including freedom of assembly, freedom to dissent and protest, freedom of the press, and freedom of artistic expression, we are monitoring developments in Washington and around the country to identify and document new threats to these fundamental rights and values.
Page last updated: February, 13 2017.
The right to protest
- January 20, 2017. On Inauguration Day, over 200 protesters were arrested, including a lawyer providing legal support to protesters. The first lawsuit challenging the legality of the arrests and the use, without warning, of allegedly disproportionate force against peaceful protestors, was filed within hours of the inauguration.
Lawful protests are protected by the First Amendment. That does not mean that protestors may stage a protest any time, or any place. Otherwise neutral laws apply to the circumstances in which a protest will be deemed “lawful.” In most states, it is unlawful to obstruct traffic on roads and highways. (Exceptions are made for emergencies, and permits can be obtained for sports events like marathons and charitable activities like walkathons.) However, as protestors have taken to the streets in greater numbers, state legislators have responded to insure that the roadways remain unobstructed. Some bills go further than necessary to achieve reasonable goals and seem more likely intended to intimidate and penalize protesters.
A bill introduced in Minnesota would make people convicted of participating in or attending an “unlawful assembly” potentially responsible for the “public safety response costs.” A second bill aimed at protests that disrupt traffic would make “obstruction of justice” a felony.
In North Dakota, state legislators have introduced a bill to protect any driver “who negligently causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic” from liability; it also precludes criminal charges against any driver who “unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic.” The bill was, however, voted down by state lawkers on 2/14/2017.
A bill in Iowa would increase penalties for intentionally obstructing traffic on a highway, making it a felony.
There are also bills in Tennessee and Indiana that raise questions. They appear, on their face, aimed at preventing unlawful obstruction of roadways, but they may be amended or clarified in ways that would raise concerns
Freedom of the press
- January 20, 2017. At least six journalists reporting on the Inauguration Day protests were arrested on felony riot charges. Charges against one journalist were dismissed on January 27, as were charges against three more on January 30. Other journalists were reportedly restricted to areas set aside by police and not allowed to view or film the encounters between police and protestors.
[Editor’s note: the fact that charges have been and may be dismissed does not negate the harmful effects of unlawful arrests, which temporarily deprived individuals of their freedom, required them to mount a defense, and has an ongoing chilling effect.]
- Author's Guild statement on press freedoms: Authors Guild Denounces Trump's "Declaration of War" On Press
- At the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), scientists are now required to submit scientific data and studies to political appointees before information can be publicly released.
- The Washington Post on current safeguards for scientists who face government opposition over their studies.
- Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility letter to President Trump warning that scientific censorship is "doomed to fail."
- Datarefuge: A project attempting to catolog, and thereby safeguard, environmental research and federal date on climate change.
Access to information
- January 23, 2017. President Trump signed an executive order reinstating the Global Gag Rule, which prohibits overseas health care providers receiving federal funding from giving patients information, referrals or services related to abortion, even with other funds, potentially also curtailing work on diseases like AIDS and malaria. For more information about the history of the Global Gag rule, visit NCAC's timeline.
- January 24, 2017. Media blackouts were issued at a number of federal agencies, including the EPA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of the Interior and the Agriculture Department. The blackout banned news releases, blog updates and social media updates. It is unclear, however, whether the orders are the kind of routine actions taken by previous new administrations during a period of transition, or whether they represent more permanent restrictions.
- PEN America's statement on the alleged media blackouts.
- Project on Government Oversight on why government gag orders are dangerous.
- The Sunlight Foundation asserts opposition to measures limiting communications with the public.
- Lawmakers ask the Trump administration to clarify intentions behind agency gag orders.
- January 27, 2017. President Trump signed an Executive Order that banned entry of refugees from six majority Muslim nations, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen for 120 days, and from Syria indefinitely. Other travelers from these countries will be barred for 90 days. The order was later altered to exempt permanent legal residents. The action has already blocked hundreds of students and scholars with visas who were en route – some detained in airports – or scheduled to travel to the United States in the near future, jeopardizing academic research and programs.
February 1, 2017. A speech by the controversial Breitbart tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos was cancelled by the University of California at Berkeley, after protests turned violent. A similar event at UC Davis on Jan. 13 was cancelled at the last minute by sponsors who consulted campus police and university administrators over concerns that protests would turn violent. On Feb. 2, at NYU, eruptions of violence accompanied a speech by another controversial speaker, VICE co-founder and former Fox News contributor Gavin McInnes, whose talk proceeded in spite of them, only to be cut short when McInnes left because of repeated interruptions by protesters.
Peaceful protests are protected speech, as long as they do not interfere with the right of others to speak. However, the First Amendment does not protect acts or serious threats of violence as a form of protest. Some of the recent violent disruptions are reportedly the actions of outsiders apparently affiliated with self-described anti-fascist groups. Regardless of who is involved, universities are justified in taking reasonable steps to prevent immediate harm, but not in sacrificing free speech and academic freedom in the process. It is an urgent task, if not an easy one.
- Association of American Universities' statement calling for a quick end to visa restrictions on foreign students and faculty.
- American Association of University Professor's statement addressing online lists and websites that target university professors for partisan political reasons, which work to intimidate and silence faculty members.
- NCAC resource: STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLE: Free Expression at Risk, at Yale and Elsewhere
- The same Executive Order closing borders to visitors from specified mid-east countries also bars artists. Among those affected is Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian filmmaker, whose film “The Salesman,” has been nominated for an Academy Award. He was scheduled to attend the awards ceremonies on Feb. 26, 2017, but has announced that, even if granted an exemption, he would not attend.
- The Museum of the Moving Image in New York closed an exhibit, HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US, after it became, according to the Museum, “a flashpoint for violence.” The exhibit is described as “a participatory performance by LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner that invites the public to deliver the words ‘He will not divide us’ into a camera mounted on a wall.” The Museum closed the exhibit after dozens of threats of violence and the arrest of one of the artists, Shia LeBoeuf, resulting in a situation requiring 24 hour police protection around the installation. The museum closed the exhibit on Feb. 10, 2017, citing a “serious and ongoing public safety hazard for the Museum, its visitors, staff, local residents, and businesses.”
- NCAC statement: National and International Cultural and Human Rights Organizations Denounce Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration
What We're Watching
Elimination of federal programs
- There are indications that the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the Corporation of Public Broadcasting may be eliminated from the budget submitted by the Trump administration. Such funding cuts would eliminate institutions which promote research and artistic expression, provide a critical platform for a vast amount of valuable content, and provide essential funding for authors, small presses and arts organizations.
- PEN America's statement on the funding threats.
- The New York Times: What if Trump Really Does End Money for the Arts?
- The Earth science division of NASA may also be slated for the chopping block. NASA is one of the premier researchers on climate change and has produced ground-breaking research that is relied on by scientists and governments around the world.