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Writers group PEN America, represented by the non-profit body Protect Democracy and the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, has filed a lawsuit against President Trump alleging violations of America’s First Amendment which protects freedom of speech.  The lawsuit seeks to stop President Trump “from using the machinery of government to retaliate or threaten reprisals against journalists and media outlets for coverage he dislikes”.

In an open letter on the PEN America website, it says: “The White House has called for individual journalists to be fired, and the president has referred to the media as “the enemy of the American people.” This has created an environment of hostility toward the media wherein journalists have been subject to death threats, needed bodyguards to cover political rallies, and have faced attacks in their newsrooms. The president has also threatened book publishers and authors who have published critical volumes.”

It isn’t the first time that PEN America has filed suit against a US president, but the body believes this time President Trump’s behaviour is of another order.  It says: “The open and systemic assault we are seeing from President Trump, especially within the current global context in which autocrats around the world—many of whom President Trump openly admires—are undermining a free press in similar ways, poses a level of danger that we believe is unique in recent history.  Past presidents may have skirted First Amendment values or even the law itself, but they continued to affirm the importance of a free press.  In contrast, President Trump has called the press “the enemy of the people,” while turning the regulatory and enforcement powers of the state against the press in a deliberate attempt to silence criticism.”

PEN America has said that the president has a right to criticise journalists and writers because he is protected by the same First Amendment rights the body is citing in its legal action.  But it adds: “However, when President Trump crosses the line and threatens to use his authority to punish the media, or actually does so, it is vital for the courts to step in and affirm that such threats and reprisals are unconstitutional.”

The body is citing a number of instances where it feels the president has acted unconstitutionally, among them:

  • Threatening and using the Department of Justice to disrupt a merger involving CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, with AT&T because of CNN coverage that the president found hostile
  • Directing the US Postal Service to explore raising postal rates for Amazon because of critical coverage of the president in the Washington Post which is owned by Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos
  • Directing the removal of certain White House correspondents from events covering he president and threatening to ban additional journalists from these events.

It also deplores the attempts by president Trump to stop publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged earlier this year, describing them as “flagrantly unconstitutional”.

Interestingly, earlier this year one of Trump’s lawyers, Douglas Mirrell, a former partner at Harder LLP, resigned from the firm citing concerns over the First Amendment and its work with the White House.  He said: “I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the docket of matters we were handling.  They seemed irreconcilable with my core commitment to the defense of the First Amendment”.