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: July 5th, 2017​.

The right to protest

  • Peaceful protests are protected by the First Amendment.  That does not mean that protestors may stage a protest any time, or any place. The government may adopt neutral rules to regulate where and when such protests take place, as long as they are applied consistently and do not unnecessarily interfere with the ability of protesters to convey their message to their intended audience.   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.

By the end of February 2017, legislators in at least 18 states have made proposals to discourage, intimidate, or penalize protestors.

At the end of March, two officials from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights complained to the US state department about this “alarming” trend. The letter argues that the “undemocratic” bills effectively “criminalize peaceful protests.”

Extra reading:

  • The New York Times reports on the wave of anti-protest legislation across the country, often advanced by Republicans and tailored in response to specific anti-Trump protests.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union is cataloging anti-protest legislation through an interactive map of the United States that details information about each bill in each state they have been introduced
  • The National Lawyers Guild details the disturbing elements of anti-protest legislation; such as their use of the myth of the “paid protestor” and their ties to pro-policing bills. The report describes the historical precedent for such bills and the chilling effect they willl have on First Amendment protected organized dissent.

 

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.
  • May 9, 2017. A reporter for the Public News Service in West Virginia was arrested for demanding answers to questions he posed to Tom Price, the Trump administration’s secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, at the Virginia state Capitol in Charleston. Reporter Dan Hyman trailed Mr. Price as he was leaving the Capitol to ask questions about the Trump administrations’ Affordable Health Care Act, passed by the Republican House majority. After shouting questions to Mr. Price, officers of the West Virginia Division of Protective handcuffed Hyman and charged him with a “misdemeanor count of willful disruption of governmental processes.” He was later released on a $5,000 bond posted by the Public News Service. The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia called Mr. Heyman’s arrest “a blatant attempt to chill an independent, free press.”
  • May 25, 2017. Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian, was assaulted by the Republican candidate for the Montana congressional seat for asking a question a question about Donald Trump’s Affordable Health Care Act. Jacobs claimed Greg Gianforte “body slammed” him on Twitter shortly after the incident. An audio-recording released by the Guardian corroborated his claims. Gianforte was subsequently charged with assault.

[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.] 

Extra reading:

Politicizing science

  • 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.
  • In an essay for The Guardian, a director at the Arctic Institute describes how the Trump administration is deleting data and research about the Arctic

Extra reading: ​​

Access to information

Government secrecy

  • 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. 
  • April 17, 2017. The Trump administration has announced it will not publicly disclose the White House visitor log, detailing the identities of individuals who visit the White House complex. The decision marks a shirt from the Obama Administration policy, which released 6 million records during President Obama’s tenure. The White House claims the decision was made because “the grave national security risks and privacy concerns of the hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.” 
  • May, 2017. Since the inauguration, the Trump administration has removed thousands of publicly available government records from the internet. ThinkProgress, as part of their Disappearing Data Project, which is cataloging the Trump administration’s removal of government websites and datasets, reports the Department of Energy has removed a phonebook of agency staff, the number of datasets available through General Service Agency website dropped from 195,245 in February to 156,000 in April (it then shot back up to 192,648 in mid-May), the Bureau of Land Management has removed hundreds of pages worth of ecological assements, the Environmental Protections Agency has taken down several web pages related to climate change and the United States Department of Agriculture has removed a massive database of records on animal welfare. ThinkProgress is filing Freedom of Information Access requests in relation to each of these removals and is asking the public to flag future websites and datasets for FOIA requests as they are removed.
  • June 2, 2017. The New York Times reports that the Trump administration will return the 2014 Senate report about the CIA’s detentiona nd interrogation program to Congress, meaning it will be exempt from laws requiring government records to eventually become public. The move was prompted by the demands of a top Republican senator who claimed the report was “shoddy and excessively critical of the C.I.A.” The report, in essence, detailed the CIA’s torture program during the Bush administration and in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By locking the report in Senate vaults the Trump administration avoids it becoming a subject of Freedom of Information Act requests. This would have been the case had the report received its alternate fate and been incorporated into the records of federal agencies.

Extra reading:

Academic freedom

  • 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.
  • Free Speech on Campus:  Protests against Controversial Speakers:

During the last presidential campaign and since the election, students protesting controversial speakers have disrupted events at universities across the country, raising concerns about freedom of speech and academic freedom on campuses.  While not a new phenomenon, the numbers of such incidents have increased dramatically in the recent past.

Basic principles

In general, peaceful protest is a form of speech that is protected by the First Amendment, at least at state colleges and universities.  (In private schools, the administration has greater legal right to restrict or regulate speech, although most institutions respect principles of academic freedom that largely mirror the First Amendment.)  However, the First Amendment does not protect acts or threats of violence, and it does not entitle protesters to act in ways that deny others the right or ability to speak.  Universities are justified in taking reasonable steps to protect speakers and audience members from harm, but are obliged to do so without sacrificing free speech and academic freedom.  It is a daunting task, if not an easy one.  ​

Not a New Problem

This is not a new phenomenon.  In 2007, the American Association of University Professors issued a statement on “Academic Freedom and Outside Speakers,” expressing concerns about the effects of student protests against controversial speakers on academic freedom.    As the AAUP statement noted, this was not a new issue even then: the organization had commented on the issue in 1967, and again in 1983, in response to recent events.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) maintains a record of campus protests against speakers since 2000, which indicates that they occur with some regularity, ranging from 4 to 43 incidents per year.   The targets of protests include clerics (Archbishop Desmond Tutu), commentators (George Will, Anna Quindlen), entertainers (Alec Baldwin, Michael Moore), authors (Alice Walker, Tony Kushner), historians (Doris Kearns Goodwin), foreign dignitaries (Christine Lagarde, Ehud Olmert), academics (Ward Churchill, William Ayers, Nicholas Dirks), current and former public officials (George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, Ray Kelly, Al Franken, Eleanor Holmes Norton), among others.

As the FIRE database indicates, protests against speakers come from both sides of the political spectrum, and target views on a range of topics, including the Israel-Palestine conflict, abortion and contraception, politics, race, gender, etc.   In 147 of 325 reported cases over a 16 year period, protests or concerns for safety resulted in cancellation or interruption of a planned event.   Protests have increased in the last year, as conservative political student groups have invited provocative speakers, including most notably Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, and Ann Coulter to campus; the response from some students and others has sometimes turned violent.

Listed below is a timeline of recent incidents. Check back for updates.

  • Milo Yiannopoulos, University of Washington, 01/20/2017: The speech went on as scheduled, with heavy security, but the event was marred by protests that turned violent.
  • Milo Yiannopoulos, UC Berkeley, 02/02/2017: Violent and destructive protests before a scheduled appearance by Yiannopoulos caused an estimated $100,000 of damage to the school. Yiannopoulos’ appearance was canceled.
  • Gavin McInnes, NYU, 02/06/2017: Eleven people were arrested in Greenwich Village while protesting an appearance by McInnes sponsored by NYU’s College Republicans. One attendee was assaulted.  The event ended after 20 minutes: an NYU spokesman says McInnes chose to cut his speech short.
  • Rania Khalek, University of North Carolina, 02/26/2017: An invitation from UNC Students for Justice in Palestine to pro-Palestine journalist Khalek was rescinded after the group received complaints about her positions on the Syrian Civil War.
  • Charles Murray, Middlebury, 03/03/2017: Murray was invited to speak at Middlebury by a student group, The American Enterprise Club.  His talk was disrupted by protesters and relocated to a venue where it was to be live-streamed.   As Murray and a faculty member tried to leave, they were surrounded by violent protesters who injured the faculty host.
  • Heather MacDonald, Claremont McKenna College, 04/09/2017: After protesters blocked entrance to the building where MacDonald was scheduled to speak, she was moved to another location and her speech was live-streamed.
  • Robert Spencer, Truman State, 04/11/2017: Students at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, sought to cancel a speech by conservative author and anti-Islam activist Spencer, but the talk went forward as scheduled.
  • David Horowitz, Berkeley, canceled 04/11/2017: Berkeley’s College Republicans say they were forced to cancel an appearance by Horowitz due to an excess of administrative roadblocks. Due to increased security concerns following Milo Yiannopoulos’ January appearance at Cal, campus police said the event would have to be held in the middle of the day and away from the center of the campus. The group said it would focus its energy on a forthcoming Ann Coulter appearance, which was subsequently canceled as well.
  • Richard Spencer, Auburn University, 04/18/2017:  Spencer’s speech at Auburn, at a campus venue rented by him through intermediaries, went forward under court order, despite the University’s efforts to block his appearance.  Protests resulted in three arrests.
  • Ann Coulter, Berkeley, canceled 04/19/2017: Coulter’s appearance, organized by Berkeley’s College Republicans, was canceled by the university because of security concerns. Coulter rejected the offer to speak at a different time and location.
  • Jordan Peterson, Linfield College, 04/19/2017: A scheduled talk by free speech activist Peterson was canceled after funding was pulled amidst concerns that “stipulations” required by the university had not been met.  The event was rescheduled at an off-campus venue.
  • Linda Sarsour, CUNY, (ongoing): Linda Sarsour, a prominent Muslim-American civil rights activist, will be delivering the commencement address at the City University of New York. The announcement of Sarsour as commencement speaker was well received by the CUNY community, however a campaign was launched by New York lawmakers, spearheaded by Assemblyman Dov Hikind, to pressure CUNY to cancel Sarsour’s speech for purely political reasons. Hikind describes Sarsour, who is ardently pro-Palestinian, as anti-Israel and an “apologist” for terrorism, and claims therefore she is an unsuitable CUNY commencement speaker. He cites, in particular, Sarsour’s tweet of an image of rock holding Palestinian boy with the caption “the definition of courage” as evidence of her allegedly support of terrorims.

Extra reading:

Cultural exchange

  • Evidence suggests the Trump administration’s implementation of “extreme vetting” procedures for foreign visa applicants is having an adverse effect on cultural exchange. According to immigration lawyers that specialize in artist visas, the State Department has increasingly been denying applications for the visas, which allow foreign performers and artists to temporarily enter the U.S. to perform.
  • 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.”

Extra reading:

 

What We’re Watching

Elimination of federal programs

  • President Trump has proposed axing the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the Corporation of Public Broadcasting from the first federal budget plan 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. 

Extra reading:

  • 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.

Extra Reading

A Doctrine of Absolute Protection by Scott Turow: Turow, an attourney an writer, discusses the complications that arise when granting corporations and private institutions the same free speech rights as citizens as per the Citizens United ruling of 2010.

Tools for Activists

NCAC is responding to inquiries from individuals concerned about the administration in Washington, DC’s proposed statements and policies by listing our partner organizations and others’ current action initiatives on free speech related issues.

The list of tools continues to grow and we invite you to submit your own ideas for extra things to include.