Free Speech Q&A: Bernie Sanders
1. What do you see as the top three threats to free expression, including press freedom, in the United States today?
First, we have an authoritarian in the White House in Donald Trump. He is a pathological liar who has spent his presidency trying to demonize journalists when they dare to debunk his lies. Worse, he has called the media the “enemy of the people” in a deliberate attempt to destroy the very idea of a free press. Trump’s authoritarian bullying of the media is totally unacceptable and it must be denounced and rejected. [Read about PEN America’s lawsuit against the president for his unconstitutional retaliation of the press].
Second, decades of consolidation and deregulation have resulted in just a small handful of companies control almost everything we watch, read, and download. Given that reality, we should not want even more of the free press to be put under the control of a handful of corporations and “benevolent” billionaires who can use their media empires to punish their critics and shield themselves from scrutiny.
Third, the unchecked power of money in politics has advanced the causes of the wealthy at the expense of the working class and our democracy. When the top one percent and large corporations are able to push their agenda with unlimited resources, from advertising to lobbying to political contributions, the voices and concerns of the working people are drowned out. Bernie will end the influence of money in our politics and return to a government of, by and for the people.
2. Americans from all political stripes have registered deep concern about the impact of fraudulent news and disinformation on our electoral process and our civil life. What steps will you take to ensure you and your supporters will not use or spread fraudulent news in your campaign?
Our campaign has a vigorous process for sourcing and fact checking the information we release — and that provides the basis for much of what our supporters promote and cite. We always encourage our supporters to rely on well-sourced, verifiable information. [Learn about PEN America’s original research examining how disinformation affects our society].
3. Local journalism across America is in crisis – some 20 percent of all metro and community newspapers in the US have gone out of business or merged since 2004 and those that remain have made deep cuts to reporting. What steps would you take to shore up local journalism and its key role in democratic accountability at the state and local level?
Bernie Sanders is the only presidential candidate to release a comprehensive media reform plan.
As President, Bernie will put in place policies that will reform the media industry and better protect independent journalism at both the local and national levels. [Read PEN America’s recent report on the local news crisis and our recommendations for fostering strong local news around the country].
For example, we will reverse the Trump administration’s attempts to make corporate media mergers even more likely in the future. We are not going to rubber stamp proposals like the new plan to merge CBS and Viacom into a $30 billion colossus. Bernie has long opposed media consolidation, and was one of only 16 members of the U.S. House to oppose the disastrous 1996 Telecommunications Act, which accelerated consolidation. In a Bernie Sanders administration, we are going to institute an immediate moratorium on approving mergers of major media corporations until we can better understand the true effect these transactions have on our democracy. In the spirit of existing federal laws, we will start requiring major media corporations to disclose whether or not their corporate transactions and merger proposals will involve significant journalism layoffs.
“Our constitution’s First Amendment explicitly protects the free press because the founders understood how important journalism is to a democracy.”
We will also require that, before any future mergers can take place, employees must be given the opportunity to purchase media outlets through employee stock-ownership plans — an innovative business model that was first pioneered in the newspaper industry.
And we will prevent media-related merger and deregulation decisions at federal agencies that adversely affect people of color and women. As the non-profit watchdog group Free Press has noted, “Women and people of color are woefully underrepresented among broadcast-license holders.” The group points out that this is because when the Federal Communications Commission has approved mergers it has failed “to consider how such concentration affects ownership opportunities for women and people of color.”
When our administration appoints new, progressive leadership at the FCC, we will reverse the Trump administration’s moves, which have gutted longstanding media ownership rules. What Trump has done allows cross-ownership of newspapers and television or radio stations; he has also given the green light to owning multiple stations in the same market. The harm may be great: “In theory,” says Free Press, “these changes would allow a single broadcaster to own both your local newspaper and your top-two local broadcast stations, plus operate a handful of other stations through sharing agreements—turning your community into a one-newsroom town.”
In a Bernie Sanders administration, we will do the opposite: we will reinstate and strengthen media ownership rules, and we will limit the number of stations that large broadcasting corporations can own in each market and nationwide. We will also direct federal agencies to study the impact of consolidation in print, television, and digital media to determine whether further antitrust action is necessary.
Additionally, we will pass Bernie’s Workplace Democracy Plan, which will boost media workers’ laudable efforts to form unions and collectively bargain with their employers.
Bernie has publicly supported journalists’ efforts to unionize. Unions not only fight for media workers’ wages and benefits, they can also better protect reporters from corporate policies that aim to prevent journalists from scrutinizing media owners and their advertisers.
Finally, when it comes to Silicon Valley, Bernie will appoint an Attorney General as well as Federal Trade Commission officials who more stringently enforce antitrust laws against tech giants like Facebook and Google, to prevent them from using their enormous market power to cannibalize, bilk, and defund news organizations. Their monopoly power has particularly harmed small, independent news outlets that do not have the corporate infrastructure to fight back. We must also explore new ways to empower media organizations to collectively bargain with these tech monopolies, and we should consider taxing targeted ads and using the revenue to fund nonprofit civic-minded media. That will be part of an overall effort to substantially increase funding for programs that support public media’s news-gathering operations at the local level — in much the same way many other countries already fund independent public media.
Our constitution’s First Amendment explicitly protects the free press because the founders understood how important journalism is to a democracy. More than two centuries after the constitution was signed, we cannot sit by and allow corporations, billionaires, and demagogues to destroy the Fourth Estate, nor can we allow them to replace serious reporting with infotainment and propaganda.
4. Federal courts have interpreted Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to provide social media platforms with immunity from liability for the content they disseminate. At the same time, there is growing public concern about the spread of Russian disinformation, hateful speech, harassment, provocations to commit violence, and other forms of noxious content on social media platforms. What, if any, reforms to Section 230 would you support to address the tech platforms’ accountability for content?
Bernie believes that tech giants and online platforms should not be shielded from responsibility when they knowingly allow content on their platforms that promotes and facilitates violence. Section 230 was written well before the current era of online communities, expression, and technological development, so Bernie will work with experts and advocates to ensure that these large, profitable corporations are held responsible when dangerous activity occurs on their watch, while protecting the fundamental right of free speech in this country and making sure right-wing groups don’t abuse regulation to advance their agenda.
5. In the wake of recent instances where connections have been drawn between hateful speech and acts of violence, some have proposed that we look to other democratic countries with laws that criminalize various forms of “hate speech.” Do you believe the United States should consider broader legal prohibitions on hateful speech, and what, if anything, do you believe should be done to curb the spread of hateful speech?
We have got to come together as a nation and combat the rise of violent white supremacist extremism. That means redirecting federal resources to address this threat to our national security. There has been an uptick in reported hate crimes — while the Trump administration has reduced the number of federal hate crimes prosecutions.
Bernie is personally all too familiar with the barbarity that comes from hateful ideology. Most of his father’s family was brutally murdered at the hands of Hitler’s white supremacist regime. That regime came to power on a wave of violence and hatred against racial and religious minorities. We cannot allow that cancer to grow here.
Our First Amendment allows anyone to hold any view they want — even hateful and repugnant ones. But it does not permit carrying out acts of treason against our country.
And that’s what these attacks are.
Nor does it or should it shield the online platforms from responsibility where the owners knowingly allow these violent extremists to plot and plan attacks on our people.
6. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi drew the world’s attention to the Saudi government’s brutal suppression of its critics. Scores of Saudi activists have been detained and prosecuted for advocating for women’s rights and other freedoms. As president, what new steps would you take to push for the release of prisoners of conscience and the protection of human rights in Saudi Arabia?
Bernie has been one of Congress’s strongest critics of Saudi Arabia’s atrocious human rights record, its oppression of women, jailing of dissidents, and the devastating war it is waging in Yemen. In a speech on the Senate floor in June 2017, he criticized the Saudi government for its arrest of human rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who remains imprisoned today and has alleged torture by Saudi authorities. [PEN America honored Loujain al-Hathloul and other imprisoned women activists in Saudi Arabia with our 2019 Freedom to Write award]. As president, Bernie will continue to speak out and make clear to the Saudi government that their relationship with the United States will suffer if human rights abuses continue, and that those responsible must be held accountable. Given that our intelligence agencies have determined that Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman was responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Bernie would also not allow MBS to set foot in the White House. [Read about PEN America’s efforts to demand accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi].
7. Are you concerned about the climate of free speech on college campuses and what approaches do you believe can be most effective in ensuring that universities remain open to the widest possible breadth of ideas?
Bernie believes, fundamentally, that people have a right to speak and students have a right, if they are on a college campus, not to attend. They also have a right to ask hard questions about the speaker if they disagree with him or her, and students have the right to protest. [Learn about PEN America’s Campus Free Speech Project and our work around the country].
Bernie does not believe we should be afraid of somebody coming on a campus or anyplace else and speaking or that we should deny somebody else the right to express his or her point of view.
“We must also explore new ways to empower media organizations…”
8. What role will considerations of human rights and particularly free expression play in the United States’ bilateral relationships with both Russia and China, and what steps would you take to hold Moscow and Beijing accountable for violations of freedom of expression and assembly both domestically and outside its borders?
As president, Bernie would make the promotion of human rights and the defense of free expression a priority for the United States and work closely with allies who share these values to help protect and advance them. Under a Sanders administration, American diplomats will be empowered to push for these rights in their work around the world.
Bernie would also consider the use of targeted sanctions against Russian, Chinese, and other officials implicated in human rights abuses. He would also consider restrictions on companies supplying technology that enables human rights abuses and political repression.
9. In our 2015 report, Secret Sources: Whistleblowers, National Security and Free Expression, PEN America documented a series of gaps in whistleblower protection. With renewed attention to the essential role of whistleblowers in uncovering official wrongdoing, how will you address these deficiencies in protection so that the American public can have the benefit of disclosures essential to ensuring our national security?
Bernie believes that Trump’s dangerous and authoritarian attacks on the whistleblower are unacceptable. Those with knowledge of wrongdoing in our government should be able to make their concerns known without fear of reprisal. Bernie also believes journalists reporting on these sensitive matters must be protected, and strongly condemned Trump’s abuse of the Espionage Act to threaten the First Amendment rights of journalists and publishers.
Free Speech 2020 is PEN America’s year-long initiative to highlight threats to free speech and showcase how we intend to fight back—by defending press freedom, fighting online harassment, combating disinformation, and upholding protest rights. As part of this candidate series, PEN America contacted all major presidential candidates for interviews. PEN America is highlighting our conversations with writers, artists, activists, journalists, and advocates who work at the intersections of creative expression and free speech throughout 2020. Learn more about our work here »