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Free Expression and the First 100 Days

An Agenda for the Biden-Harris Administration

For nearly a century, PEN America has defended the freedom to write and free expression. After four years of the Trump administration’s relentless attacks on the First Amendment and betrayals of the principle of open discourse, PEN America urges the Biden-Harris administration to make free expression a cornerstone of its domestic and foreign policy. In so doing, the new administration can foster healthier civic debate in the United States, elevate respect for facts and truth, restore the country’s international reputation as a standard-bearer for human rights, and strengthen the voices of millions around the world who exercise free speech rights at their own peril.

Specifically, PEN America urges the incoming administration to take the following actions in the first 100 days.

Reverse executive orders that violate or threaten free speech rights
Beginning with the Muslim ban and extending to ideologically-based strictures on free expression on American college campuses, the Trump administration has adopted a series of executive orders that in some instances proclaim to uphold free speech while in fact undercutting the First Amendment and free expression. PEN America calls on the Biden-Harris administration to revoke the following orders:

Defend and promote press freedom in the U.S.
The Trump administration has waged an unprecedented assault on the media, doing serious and lasting damage to Americans’ faith in professional journalism and undermining U.S. efforts to protect press freedom. Affirmative steps are needed to undo the damage to Americans’ attitudes toward the press and to shore up press freedom and respect for the role of the professional media in the U.S. PEN America calls on the Biden-Harris administration to:

  • Set a tone in all speeches and statements that make plain the administration supports a free press as a pillar of democracy.
  • Reverse the Trump administration’s practice of arbitrarily wielding White House credentialing to ban or otherwise penalize journalists.
  • Require cabinet secretaries to identify ways to increase press access and public accountability within their agencies.
  • Fully restore the independence of outlets under the U.S. Agency for Global Media, reversing efforts to undermine those institutions through ideologically-driven personnel and policy decisions.
  • Suspend and avoid prosecutions—under the Espionage Act or other laws—that could criminalize the work of journalists.
Reporters gathered around Mark Meadows outside the White House

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows speaks with reporters at the White House, Friday, October 2, 2020, in Washington. Photo by AP/Alex Brandon.

Endorse an independent commission to revitalize local journalism
The health of the American news and information ecosystem is threatened by a serious crisis affecting the local news sector. Even prior to the pandemic, newsrooms had lost over $35 billion in ad revenue and 47 percent of newsroom staff over the past 15 years; over 1,800 newspapers had closed. According to Poynter, more than 60 local newsrooms have closed as a result of the pandemic. The primary cause of this trauma is the migration of advertising dollars from local news outlets to online platforms. While philanthropic assistance and innovative business models are helping keep some vibrant outlets alive, the fate of the sector as a whole will depend upon more sweeping policy solutions, including a reexamination of the decades-old model for public funding of news. PEN America calls on the Biden-Harris administration to:

  • Support—through congressional or executive action—the creation of a federal future of local news commission to study the crisis in local journalism and propose new ways to support local accountability reporting.

Safeguard protest and assembly rights
The last several years have witnessed the vast expansion of state-level restrictions on protest rights, as well as indelible examples of both the inspiring potential of mass demonstrations and the devastating consequences that can ensue when the exercise of free assembly rights is accompanied by violence. Hundreds of incidents of law enforcement infringements on press freedom rights in the context of protest have been documented. PEN America calls on the Biden-Harris administration to:

  • Request that the Justice Department prepare a report on securing the right to protest that would address the following issues: ensuring viewpoint-neutral and non-discriminatory approaches to regulating and policing protests; safeguarding press freedom rights in the context of protests; managing the intersection between gun laws and protest rights; clarifying the interplay of local, state, and national level law enforcement in policing protests; and addressing privacy rights and intelligence gathering methods in relation to policing protests.
Riot police block off the Albuquerque Convention Center to anti-Trump protests

In this Tuesday, May 24, 2016 file photo, riot police block off the Albuquerque Convention Center to anti-Trump protests following a rally and speech by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the convention center where the event was held, in Albuquerque, N.M. Photo by AP/Brennan Linsley.

Establish a disinformation defense and free expression task force
The role of deceptions, propaganda, and conspiracy theories in connection with the 2020 election and its violent aftermath illustrates the clear and present threat disinformation poses to national security and our information ecosystem. PEN America calls on the Biden-Harris administration to:

  • Create a task force to identify steps that the federal government can take to combat disinformation while safeguarding freedom of expression. Policies to consider should include: strategies to increase media literacy among children and adults; training on disinformation tactics and defense for government officials and staff; engagement with social media companies on disinformation defense strategies; initiatives to blunt the impact of disinformation on Black, Latino, and immigrant communities that are deliberately and disproportionately targeted by disinformation; and efforts to connect to reputable organizations that can help pierce the bubble of right-wing disinformation and conspiracy theories.

Make the defense of freedom of expression a foreign policy priority
In 2019, at least 238 writers, academics, and public intellectuals were in prison or held in detention unjustly in connection with their writing, their work, or related activism. The top jailers of writers were China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Iran, countries that the Trump administration failed to hold to account for their egregious human rights abuses. PEN America calls on the Biden-Harris administration to:

  • Appoint an envoy devoted to press freedom and based at the State Department to elevate concerns of press freedom within U.S. diplomacy.
  • Consistently raise freedom of expression concerns and cases of individuals jailed or persecuted for their expression when engaging with foreign governments.
  • Ensure freedom of expression is a key focus of the planning for a Summit for Democracy that President-elect Biden has committed to convening.
  • Rejoin the UN Human Rights Council and support resolutions that safeguard free expression.
  • Support efforts to hold to account governments and individuals responsible for the persecution of writers and journalists; provide emergency visas for at-risk human rights defenders; and offer increased international development assistance to advance free expression and support individuals at risk.
  • Hold Saudi officials accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and release government records related to his murder.
  • Ease immigration options for those facing increasing persecution in Hong Kong.
PEN Free Aseyev Empty Chair Day

Supporters and Members of PEN America gather to rally for imprisoned writer Stanislav Aseyev. Photo by PEN America.


Support a free and open internet and take an informed and realistic approach to social media regulation
Social media platforms offer jet fuel for disinformation and hatred, yet also provide fora for free speech and open debate for hundreds of millions. PEN America calls on the Biden-Harris administration to:

  • Ensure that any reforms of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—or additional legislation or regulation related to it—are tailored to specific objectives and subject to transparency requirements and reviews to enable policymakers and analysts to assess their efficacy and impact over time.
  • Ensure that new policy, regulatory, and legal approaches tackle not only the question of content creation but the role of algorithms—and algorithmic bias—in elevating and suppressing content.
  • Establish a National Task Force on Online Harassment and Abuse, as President-elect Biden has pledged, and ensure it explicitly acknowledges online abuse as a threat to free speech, and prioritizes solutions that do not themselves infringe on freedom of expression.
  • Re-commit the United States to advancing a global vision of digital governance that encompasses unfettered global communications.

Provide support to writers, the literary arts, and the freedom to write, especially amid the pandemic
COVID-19 has decimated the literary landscape, imperiling the careers of countless writers and potentially stifling an entire generation of authors. PEN America calls on the Biden-Harris administration to:

  • In the spirit of the Federal Writers Project and Federal Arts Project, work with the arts and culture community to establish robust new support for arts and culture institutions, for individual writers and artists, and for organizations that can commission new works of literature and art.
  • Address the literary arts in all COVID-19 relief and recovery bills and make specific reference to “literary arts” in any policy proposals to support arts and culture amid the pandemic.

More PEN America Resources

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This project helps us begin to understand the toll of the pandemic on journalism in the United States.
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Drawn from the curriculum of PEN America’s “Knowing the News” project, here are five quick tips for defending against disinformation.
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