LESS THAN ONE MONTH after he won the general election, Donald Trump has failed to blossom into the “presidential” president-elect his handlers promised months ago. Instead, while the Republican PEOTUS has backed off of plans to prosecute Hillary Clinton and pull out of the Paris Agreement, he and his entourage of surrogates have continued to threaten the First Amendment rights of political opponents, journalists, and other dissenters.
Trump’s anti-free speech rhetoric has grown so troubling that the Committee to Protect Journalists — a nonprofit that “reports on violations in repressive countries, conflict zones, and established democracies alike” — released statements in October declaring that Trump “has consistently betrayed First Amendment values” and is “an unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists.” CPJ’s October 13 statement goes on to list the president-elect’s slights against journalism, including his mockery of a reporter with disabilities, his refusal to condemn violence against journalists, and his promise to “open up our libel laws.” On top of all that, Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said New York Times editor Dean Banquet “should be in jail” for publishing an excerpt from the president-elect’s 1995 tax returns.
Lewandowski isn’t the only member of Trump’s cabal to suggest legal ramifications for his detractors. Another of the PEOTUS’ former campaign managers, Kellyanne Conway, told Fox News Sunday‘s Chris Wallace that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) “should be very careful about characterizing somebody in a legal sense.” Conway’s comments were a response to Reid’s painting of Trump as “a sexual predator who lost the popular vote and fueled his campaign with bigotry and hate.”
The Trump administration is prepared to twist and gut the First Amendment as quickly as possible, but its plans do not end with its position on libel. In a 7 A.M. tweet on November 29, Trump flirted with the idea of harsh punishments for those who burn the U.S. flag, either unaware or unfazed by the fact that the Supreme Court upheld citizens’ right to burn the flag as “symbolic speech that is protected by the First Amendment” in the 1989 Texas v. Johnson case. Also irrespective of the constitutionality of flag burning was Trump spokesperson Jason Miller, who reiterated the president-elect’s sentiments in a same-day CNN interview.
But while Miller was confident that “most Americans would agree with” the president-elect on the issue, Trump’s fellow Republicans were quick to throw themselves behind the Supreme Court’s decision. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) told MSNBC that, although he couldn’t understand why someone would want to burn the U.S. flag, he and the rest of the House GOP would “protect … what the court has upheld.” Representative Sean Duffy (R-WI) also declined to support Trump’s position on the issue.
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
Overall, the positions Trump has taken on freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment bear a striking resemblance to those of his favorite boogeyman: China.
Although China’s constitution grants citizens their freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and publication, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may revoke those rights as it sees fit. In 2015, China was responsible for 49 of the 199 journalists and bloggers imprisoned worldwide, more than twice the number jailed by the next-closest offender, Egypt. Many of China’s press prisoners are members of marginalized ethnic and religious communities — such as Tibetans and Uyghurs — or report on issues important to those minorities.
Crackdowns on Chinese writers and publishers aren’t getting any better. Following the disappearance of five employees from a Hong Kong bookstore that specialized in literature banned on the mainland, individuals and organizations at all levels of the Chinese publishing industry have begun to shy away from buying, producing, and selling controversial works. The situation has grown so dire that one Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Mei Fong, recently decided to give away free, Chinese-language copies of her book, One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment, online, for as long as the government would allow Chinese Internet users access to the download.
Writers, publishers, and booksellers aren’t the only citizens with something to fear from China’s crackdowns, however. PEN America reports that “even a single tweet can get a citizen detained.” Reviewing social media censorship in 2013, Harvard University researchers found that “the purpose of the censorship program is to reduce the probability of collective action by clipping social ties whenever any collective movements are in evidence or expected.”
Whether Trump will endeavor to jail dissenters remains to be seen. So far, he has contented himself with blocking them on Twitter. That he canceled plans to prosecute Clinton is a small comfort, but, now that we’ve reached “a new low in American democracy,” it’s difficult to judge where the next four years will lead.
If he is given any access to the slippery slope of First Amendment revocation, Trump could easily curtail citizens’ rights to association and assembly. We must remain vigilant and vocal if we intend to stop him.