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Photo: Ed Lederman/PEN America.

PEN America Sues Trump over First Amendment Violations

PEN America, the nonprofit literary and human rights organization headquartered in New York, filed a lawsuit against President Donald Trump on Tuesday that claims he repeatedly attacked various journalists and media outlets in an attempt to stifle free speech. The complaint states that Trump’s actions, including his threats of retaliation against the press for criticizing him and his administration, violate the First Amendment and his oath to uphold the Constitution.

“President Trump has directed his threats and retaliatory actions at specific outlets whose content and viewpoints he views as hostile,” the suit reads. “As a result, journalists who report on the President or his administration reasonably believe they face a credible threat of government retaliation for carrying out the duties of their profession. . . . His actions seek to accomplish indirectly what the President cannot do directly: impede professional and investigative journalism, and silence criticism.”

The complaint cites Trump’s previous verbal attacks on the press—he has been known to call the journalists covering his rallies “disgusting” and to declare that reports showing him in an unfavorable light are “fake news”—but acknowledges that this speech, while anti-democratic, is still protected by the very amendment PEN America claims he is abusing. The suit also notes that his language, specifically his labeling journalists as “the enemy of the American people,” echoes the words of Joseph Stalin and other authoritarian and repressive rulers.

The lawsuit focuses on several examples of Trump’s allegedly unconstitutional behavior, such as his attempts “to punish” the chief shareholder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post. Trump has notoriously tweeted and made numerous official statements attacking the media outlet over its coverage of him. It claims that the president’s threats of government action against Bezos caused “a pronounced dip in Amazon’s stock value in July 2018.” He has also pressured US Postmaster General Megan Brennan to review its shipping costs and to double the rate it offers companies such as Amazon. The suit argues that a proposal to increase rates announced last week by the Postal Service is a direct result of Trump’s campaign against the shipping giant.

On the suit’s long list of Trump’s alleged abuses of power are his meddling in the merger of AT&T and CNN—he unsuccessfully tried to sue CNN’s parent company—and his threats to challenge broadcast licenses for television stations owned by or carrying NBC and other networks, and to take away the press credentials of reporters who ask him displeasing questions and whose coverage he doesn’t like. In July 2018, the White House banned CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins from a Rose Garden press conference for asking questions the White House deemed “inappropriate.”

The lawsuit was filed in Manhattan Federal Court by the nonprofit Protect Democracy and the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic. Critics of the president claim that his refusal to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, a US ally, after its alleged assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and resident of Virginia, is a sign that Trump’s respect for the role of the press is further deteriorating.

Commenting on the suit, PEN America’s president, the journalist Jennifer Egan, said: “As an organization of working writers united in defense of free expression, we are alarmed at the climate of hostility and threat in which those who offer political reportage and commentary must now operate. PEN America has long risen to the defense of writers around the world who face peril for expressing themselves. With journalism under unprecedented attack from the White House, we feel compelled to fight back.”

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