Press Freedom Group Takes Trump to Court
Many people in the United States consider President Donald Trump’s attacks on the press to be appalling. The press freedom group PEN America goes further; it considers them actionable.
“The President has violated the First Amendment, and his oath to uphold the Constitution, through directives to administration officials to take retaliatory actions and credible public threats to use his government powers against those who report the news in ways he does not welcome,” the group declares in a lawsuit filed last October and amended in February. “Although the President is free to criticize the press, he cannot use the power and authority of the United States government to punish and stifle it.”
PEN America is one of about 100 affiliates of PEN International. The group was founded in 1921, and its original members included Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells.
The lawsuit mentions Trump’s verbal attacks on the press, including his use of the terms “enemy of the people,” “fake news,” and “frankly disgusting.” The President, it states, “shows open contempt for freedom of the press and the right to dissent, and reveals his illegitimate censorial motives almost daily.”
But the basis for the lawsuit is Trump’s actions, not his words. PEN’s complaint lists actual retaliatory acts, including revoking and threatening to revoke the security clearances of former government officials for saying things he didn’t like to the press and threatening to go after the broadcast licenses of NBC and others in retaliation for their coverage. The White House also barred CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins from a Rose Garden press event for asking questions the White House considered “inappropriate,” and revokedthe press credentials of CNN’s Jim Acosta for asking questions the President did not like, restoring these only after a lawsuit was filed.
“Using governmental authority to retaliate against the exercise of free speech or press is never legitimate,” the lawsuit states. Adds PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel, “Journalists in the United States should not have to operate under the threat of possible harm to themselves or their employers in order to report on the workings of government.”
Last year the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker recorded four dozen occasions in which journalists were arrested, threatened, or attacked. Reporters were punched, shoved, hit with rubber bullets, and pepper-sprayed. Last June, five employees of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, were shot to death by a media-hating gunman. In late 2018, for the first time, the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders listed the United States as being among the top five most dangerous countries on Earth for journalists.
In April, Trump’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss PEN’s lawsuit, arguing that the group lacks standing to bring the case and “fails to state a plausible claim upon which relief can be granted.” Essentially, the argument is that PEN was not the wronged party in any of the actions it alleges and that separation of powers principles prevent the federal courts from telling the President what to do.
PEN is fighting the motion to dismiss. In the lawsuit, PEN argues that it has and will continue to be directly impacted by Trump’s improper behavior, stating “Plaintiff has been forced to divert organizational resources away from other mission-critical activities to counter Defendant’s retaliatory directives and credible threats against journalists.”
“We’re not surprised by President Trump’s effort to get this case dismissed and protect what he views as his own prerogative to threaten and retaliate against journalists and the media,” Nossel says. “The threats and actions we are challenging are ongoing, and as they continue, our case grows more compelling.”