Trump raises the stakes on media freedom

The threats to freedom of expression are multifaceted and seem to be coming from all directions. Every day we hear about a new international threat to freedom of expression, a new SLAPP or a new campaign to silence or cancel. These threats are compounded by those who are seeking to spread misinformation and propaganda campaigns to shape the national and international narrative to suit their purposes.

From the dark recesses of the internet and the spread of deep fake videos to trolls spreading disinformation and national governments, usually the tyrants, attempting to control information sources and restricted access to media.

However, we expect protections against these threats from our democratically elected leaders and the countries that they run. Take the United States, with all the protections afforded by the First Amendment. Donald Trump and his administration unfortunately never seem to have got the memo. As president he attacked the media every day and undermined the cross-party consensus that has afforded journalists protection for over 200 years. And he hasn’t changed his stance since he left office, attacking mainstream media outlets who dare to do their job and challenge his version of reality.

And this week he has taken these attacks a step further, threatening to withdraw the licences of those media outlets he perceives to be critical of him should he be reelected in the 2024 presidential election. He literally threatened to shut them down, naming NBC and MSNBC as his initial targets.

It’s not even clear that the President has the power to do this. But the threats alone are enough to undermine media freedom in the US.

In Trump’s eyes, critical media is dishonest, corrupt and lying. He’s even accused them of treason in his angry posts on TruthSocia, his own social media platform. This attitude towards the media has an incredibly damaging effect on democracy; we’ve seen it happen in country after country. Afterall it wasn’t too long ago that President Putin was referring to critical media in Russia as liars and traitors – and now there is no independent media left within Russia’s borders.

Can you imagine a situation in which NBC News and MSNBC have to operate outside the US’s borders? Sadly, Russia has shown us that the independent media can disappear in no time at all.

Independent journalism is a key element of every democracy. Journalists provide the ultimate check and balance to power. They can shine a spotlight on corruption and speak truth to power. And of course, with that power they have the responsibility to report the news objectively and impartially.

But in turn for their professionalism and impartiality we have a duty to support them against attacks from those with an agenda. Media freedom is the first defence of our democracy. We must all stand against Donald Trump’s ongoing threats and make it clear that media freedom is vital at home and abroad.

Right for US students to speak freely off campus upheld

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117096″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]A high school cheerleader has won an important victory for the right of students to express their opinions freely while off campus.

At the end of June, the US Supreme Court ruled eight to one that the rights of high school student Brandi Levy had been violated in a case dating back to 2017.

After failing to make the varsity cheerleading team, Levy had posted profanity-laced criticisms of the team roster on Snapchat while off campus at a local convenience store. The team captain kicked her off the junior varsity cheerleading team for a year as punishment.

The Supreme Court was asked to consider whether schools had the right to regulate off-campus speech; it ruled that her posts did not disrupt school operations so Levy’s rights had been violated. The court maintained that schools have a right to regulate speech in some “school-related, off-campus activities” without defining what that would look like.

David Cole, the legal director of the ACLU, called the ruling a victory for students, saying “the message from this ruling is clear – free speech is for everyone, and that includes public school students”. The director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, which represented Levy, characterised the precedent established by the ruling, saying they successfully argued that “students have greater free speech rights out of school and on their own time.”

Despite the nature of her comments, Levy was motivated to fight for her rights.  She commented publicly that she was proud to have advocated for the rights of students saying, “young people need to have the ability to express themselves without worrying about being punished when they get to school”.

Recent graduates from Blake High School in Maryland broadly agree with the principle the court ruled on – that her speech did not disrupt the safety of the school.

Cole Shankel, class of 2023, said, “She’s overreacting… cheerleading is lame,” but added, “I don’t think public schools should be allowed to punish students for off-campus speech.”

Jeniffer Ventura, class of 2021, pointed out, “Being held accountable for your actions online is important,” expressing concern about online hate speech and racism affecting the safety and security of the community. Julian Kabik, also the class of 2021, stated simply, “If you are not making a deliberate threat online, then I don’t think you should be punished.”

This is the first student free speech case to favour students since the landmark 1969 case Tinker v Demois. The case considered students who had been suspended for wearing black armbands in protest at the war in Vietnam; the court ruled schools must show a substantial disruption to school operations, besides the speech being unpleasant, to restrict a student’s right to free speech.

The right of students to exercise free speech established in the case has been eroded by others since then. In 1986, Bethel v Fraser ruled that schools could regulate certain styles of expression if they were sexually vulgar. In 1989, in Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier, the court ruled schools had the right to regulate the content of school publications. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Morse v Frederick that schools may restrict speech at or in view of a school-supervised event if it promoted illegal drug use. The US Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit Court in 2013 and Ninth Circuit Court in 2014 ruled a student’s dress could be restricted in two separate cases related to wearing the confederate flag or American flag, respectively. The courts ruled student dress had incited disruption, and the Supreme Court declined to hear both cases.

The Levy ruling has broken the trend in student speech law, affirming students’ off-campus rights and considering the role of extracurricular activities for the first time. A ruling against Levy would have further crippled the original 1969 ruling, allowing schools to restrict students based on their speech being unpalatable and extending a school’s authority to restrict student speech to include online and off-campus speech.

Despite this, the Levy ruling is not a decisive victory for American students’ right to free speech.

When students are on campus, schools act in loco parentis – they function in place of parents. This gives schools legal authority over minors’ rights while they are at school and formally gives all other authority over minors to their legal guardians. This doctrine and the fact that Levy was off campus when she made the posts was at the centre of the majority opinion’s arguments. Since the Levy ruling reaffirms the school’s on-campus authority over student’s rights, this aspect can be interpreted as an opening to further restrict student speech when on campus.

In questioning, some justices raised concerns about a school’s ability to punish off-campus speech that was threatening to other students. Other justices raised concerns of what schools would do with authority over off-campus speech that was politically controversial.

The justices’ questions indicate that they feel the issue of off-campus speech needs to be further unpacked. All but two of the justices are under the age of 70, and all three of former President Donald Trump’s appointments are under the age of 60. With the composition of the court being unlikely to change any time soon, the right of students to express themselves freely may yet be further eroded.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Biden’s first week in office and what it means for free speech


Biden signs EO/White House/WikiCommons

Biden signs EO/White House/WikiCommons

President Joe Biden has signed a number of executive orders in the early days of his presidency that will impact upon free speech.

How the 46th president of the United States of America will be remembered in terms of protecting free speech will become apparent in the coming years. But, after four years of President Trump’s attacks on the media and introducing legislation that restricted a range of freedoms, the early days of the Biden’s administration have come as a welcome relief.

Of the more than two dozen orders signed, at least six will have ramifications for Americans in terms of their freedom of expression.

Index takes a look at how each will do just that.

Preventing and combating discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation

Perhaps the most notable executive order signed in the last week is the order to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Discriminatory bans on LGBT+ people can often stop them from speaking out.

The order says: “Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports.  Adults should be able to earn a living and pursue a vocation knowing that they will not be fired, demoted, or mistreated because of whom they go home to or because how they dress does not conform to sex-based stereotypes.”

The order will end the ban on transgender students competing in sports teams for their identified gender.

Commenting on the order, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said: “The ACLU urges the Biden administration to not only roll back Trump administration policies discriminating against transgender and non-binary people, but take action to more fully recognize transgender and non-binary people. The ACLU’s priority for the Biden administration is an executive order related to accurate ID documents.”

Rescinds the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, directs agencies to review their actions to ensure racial equity

Trump planned so-called ‘patriotic education’ in America’s schools, which raised alarm over First Amendment issues concerning forcing schools to teach children in a certain way.

The 1776 commission, set up in September 2020 and signed by executive order in November, essentially explored which parts of American should be taught and how they should be interpreted.

Announcing the commission Trump said: “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”

Biden rescinded the commission – which was ridiculed by historians – on his first day in office in an executive order on advancing racial equity.

Inclusion of non-citizens in the Census and apportionment of congressional representatives

When President Trump signed an executive order to not include people in censuses based on their immigration status, some viewed this as an infringement of their 14th amendment rights.

This section of the American constitution grants citizenship to all “born or naturalised within the United States” and gives them “equal protection under the laws”.

To not recognise illegal immigrants via a census may imply such people are no longer afforded such protections, key to ensuring their right to liberty and free speech. Biden’s order reverses this.

Fortifies DACA after Trump’s efforts to undo protections for undocumented people brought into the country as children

A new order reinstates the policy known as DACA or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which had been implemented during the Obama presidency.

DACA ensures those undocumented immigrants who arrived in the USA under the age of 16 could apply for a permit allowing them to work legally in the country, providing they have a high school diploma and (next to) no criminal record.

Trump rescinded the policy and subsequently his Department of Justice claimed information given by those applying for the permits could later be used against them to deport them, despite the act of declaring information on the form being part of a process of establishing their legal entitlements. This was a clear violation of the protection of their free speech.

Reverses the Trump administration’s restrictions on US entry for passport holders from seven Muslim-majority countries

The First Amendment protects the sharing of information and speech. Trump’s ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries was an obvious barrier to this.

The policy also raised questions over the respect of religious freedom and reached the Supreme Court in 2018, where it was upheld.

Dissenting voices at the time were expressed by Justice Sonia Sotomayer who – joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg – said: “The United States of America is a Nation built upon the promise of religious liberty. Our founders honoured that core promise by embedding the principle of religious neutrality in the First Amendment. The Court’s decision today fails to safeguard that fundamental principle.”

When Biden reversed the policy on 20 January, the White House released a statement saying: “The United States was built on a foundation of religious freedom and tolerance, a principle enshrined in the United States Constitution.”

Biden overturns ban on transgender troops

One of the most controversial policies brought in under the administration of President Donald Trump was the ban on transgender members of the military.

Transitioning troops were previously required to be stable in their gender for a minimum of 18 months before being allowed to serve. Biden’s latest executive order eliminates this.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also like to read” category_id=”5641″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

If Trump loses we must make sure his assault on the media is not lasting


Donald Trump taking questions at a press conference on Covid-19. Credit: WikiCommons

By this time next week, we will hopefully (subject to the courts, likely delays and the impact of Covid) know who the future leader of the USA will be. In an election that feels like it has been raging from the moment that Donald J Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States, it will be a relief when it is finally over.

But we need to look beyond the campaign hype and explore the longer term impact of the relationship between the White House and the media, which has become a little fraught to say the least.

According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, Trump has undermined and attacked the media a total of 2434 times since he was confirmed as the Republican candidate in 2016. Indeed within just days of taking office, he took the opportunity to label journalists “the enemy of the American People” in words that many saw as echoing those of Stalin and the Nazis, as the great granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wrote in Index on Censorship magazine at the time.

For a country built on the premise of a free press and with free speech enshrined in law it’s an appalling indictment of the current state of acceptable political discourse in the USA.

The First Amendment is one of the most revered and easily understood of all the additions to the US Constitution. At its heart is the idea that each and every US citizen has an inalienable right to their own freedom of speech and assembly.  But it also confers the absolute protection for the press to report freely and as they see fit. It reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Of course when the Founding Fathers drafted this no one could have envisaged the role of social media and how, a president with a gripe, could use it to undermine the press and deliberately seek to use his power to target journalists who report on his activities in a way he does not agree with.

Ahead of the final presidential debate, Trump took to Twitter to denounce the moderator and renowned journalist Kristen Welker as “terrible & unfair, just like most of the Fake News reporters”.

Trump said to Jeff Mason, the highly respected Reuters journalist, on a visit to Arizona, “Let me tell you something: Joe Biden is a criminal, and he’s been a criminal for a long time. … And you’re a criminal, and the media, for not reporting it.”

Trump has declared that on 3 November “We’re not just running against Joe Biden. We’re running against the left-wing media…”

Trump is, of course, entitled to use his freedom of speech to criticise the press. But he has taken this a step beyond normal criticism of the media. From early in to his administration news organisations whose editorial line might not be favourable towards Trump have been barred from press briefings. And these interferences in normal due process have only accelerated, especially during the current pandemic, as our Covid media tracker highlights.

A malevolence has seeped into presidential communications that seeks to undermine and delegitimise reporters who produce editorial content that does not fit the White House narrative. And as we head to the election, it seems that the Trump administration increasingly wants to take aim at the First Amendment and double down on their attacks on the free press.

This month, in an unprecedented move, the head of the US Agency for Global Media  (a Trump appointment) has scrapped the ‘firewall’ that protected the editorial freedoms of Voice of America and other broadcasting agencies that receive public funding. The repeal memo claimed that the firewall was in conflict with the agency’s purpose to promote the interests of American overseas. Michael Pack, the CEO of the IS Agency, claimed that the agency “do not function as a traditional news or media agency and were never intended to do so.” He added: “For example, the Networks are to articulate the American perspective while countering international views that undermine American values and freedom, or that might aid our enemies’ messaging.”

The Agency for Global Media runs Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia. Both are intended to provide independent news to audiences in countries where media freedoms are curtailed and yet now they may be used to produce nothing more than partisan propaganda for whoever wins the White House next week.

And as Index reported earlier this week, plans to change the I visa terms for foreign journalists operating in the USA have been suggested. If passed, these plans would represent a serious setback to media freedom.

None of this is even vaguely in keeping with the spirit of the First Amendment. It does little to support and promote the USA’s place in the world. Instead it undermines global free speech and as such shouldn’t be ignored by the wider global family.

On Tuesday we will hopefully find out what the USA’s long term priorities are. Be assured that we will be shining a light on whoever wins if they fail to protect our global freedom of speech and if they fail to promote and protect the media.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You might also like to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]