Trump's War on the First Amendment, Free Speech, the Media, and Public Protest
January 17, 2018
Patrick Strickland / Al Jazeera & Chris Stevenson International Editor / The Independent
On January 20, 2017, the day of Donald Trump's inauguration, 230 US citizens -- demonstrators, medics, journalists and bystanders -- were rounded up and arrested by police. Charged with" felony rioting," they faced a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. While their trials continue, Mr. Trump responded to the publication of a book critical of his time in the Oval Office by calling for stronger libel laws so "you wouldn't have things like that happen where you can say whatever comes into your head."
One Year Under Trump:
A Shrinking Space for Protests
Patrick Strickland / Al Jazeera
(January 15, 2018) -- For 11 months, Oliver Harris' life came to a near standstill as he waited to find out if he would be sent to prison for years over his alleged participation in a rally against US President Donald Trump's inauguration.
Harris, 28, was among more than 230 people rounded up and arrested by police on January 20, Inauguration Day, after confrontations with heavily armed riot police officers. A small group of people engaged in property damage during the rally.
The following day, most of those who were arrested -- demonstrators, medics, journalists and bystanders -- were charged with felony rioting, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
In April, things grew worse for 212 of the defendants when the District of Columbia Superior Court returned a superseding indictment that added a slew of additional charges, including several felonies.
The accused, who are known collectively as the "J20 defendants", were all of a sudden facing nearly eight decades -- effectively a life sentence -- behind bars. Several defendants subsequently reached plea deals for significantly lighter sentences, while others had their charges dropped. At least seven defendants had their charges reduced to misdemeanours.
By the time the first batch of defendants, which included Harris, went to trial, the charges had been reduced, but they were still facing the prospect of more than 50 years of jail time. On December 21, however, a jury found Harris, a Pennsylvania resident, and his five codefendants not-guilty on all counts.
"It was really overwhelming to hear 42 not guilty [decisions]," Harris told Al Jazeera by phone. The DC US Attorney's Office subsequently said in a statement it would pursue charges against the remaining defendants.
With 188 Inauguration Day defendants still at risk of harsh punishment, and other activists across the country facing potential jail time for alleged infractions during protests, critics say Trump has overseen a crackdown on dissent during his first year in office.
Across the US, from Washington, DC, to Sacramento, California, anti-racists, anti-fascists, leftists and other demonstrators have been charged with felonies and misdemeanours.
'Weak, Vicious and Brittle'
Referring to the shrinking space for protest symbolised by the Inauguration Day defendants' case, Harris said: "It goes hand-in-hand with the way folks across the US have been repressed, from Standing Rock to other pipeline projects . . . It's the state legal apparatus taking aim at street protests and pipeline blockades."
Among those targeted by authorities in 2017 was Yvette Felarca, an anti-fascist activist with By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a left-wing civil rights group. She was charged with felony assault and a pair of misdemeanours in July, which could result in years of jail time and hefty fines, according to court documents.
Felarca, a middle-school teacher whose legal name is Yvonne, was charged over her alleged involvement in violence during a counterprotest on June 26, 2016, when anti-fascists and anti-racists confronted a neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento, California. During that incident, white supremacists armed with knives attacked counterdemonstrators, stabbing several, including Felarca.
"We are continuing to build the movement to fight fascism and get the false charges against myself and other anti-fascist protesters in Sacramento dropped," Felarca told Al Jazeera by email.
While three others were dealt charges over the Sacramento violence, only one of them was from the white supremacist contingent.
Felarca echoed accusations that Trump's administration has emboldened authorities across the country to suppress anti-fascists, anti-racists and other anti-Trump activists across the US. "He hates and fears criticism because he hates and fears the strength of the mass movement that is committed to defeating him," she added, arguing that the ostensible crackdown is evidence that Trump's administration is "weak, vicious and brittle".
"His attempt to crack down on anti-racists and anti-fascists is exposing and isolating him to the majority of people in the US and across the world as the enemy of democratic rights."
For his part, Trump has time and again defended his administration and claimed to support the right of protesters to voice their opposition to his policies as well as racism and sexism.
In August, when tens of thousands staged a counterdemonstration against a far-right rally, Trump took to Twitter to describe anti-fascists and anti-racists as "anti-police agitators".
He later appeared to express support for the right to protest, saying: "I want to applaud the many protesters in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate. Our country will soon come together as one!"
'Hostility towards First Amendment'
On January 22, following nationwide marches for women's rights, immigration reform and other issues, Trump said on Twitter: "Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don't always agree, I recognise the rights of people to express their views."
In other instances, Trump has lashed out at demonstrators.
In February, after a rally against a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at University of California, Berkeley, the president lambasted "professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters" on Twitter.
On September 15, protests erupted in St Louis, Missouri over the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former police officer who shot dead 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith, an unarmed African American man, nearly six years earlier.
Protests spanned weeks, with demonstrators and community members engaging in civil disobedience and non-violent tactics aimed at disrupting the local economy. During the first 18 days, police arrested at least 307 people, the St Louis Police Department (SLMPD) told Al Jazeera at the time.
The SLMPD's mass arrests and forceful response to the demonstrations elicited criticism from activists and rights groups, including the local state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
With outcry mounting, Trump remained silent on the protests in St Louis, commenting neither on the demonstrations nor the police response.
Scott Michelman, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU's DC chapter, argued that "there has been an astonishing level of hostility toward the First Amendment in 2017", referring to the constitutional protection that affords those in the US the right to free speech and to assemble, among other freedoms.
"The president sets a tone for the country in lots of ways, and Trump has signalled to his supporters that free speech isn't a value of his and it shouldn't be a value of ours," Michelman told Al Jazeera. "That's given permission and encouragement to anti-free speech forces across the country, whether they be law enforcement or policymakers."
Throughout Trump's first year in office, right-wing state legislators introduced dozens of bills designed to curb the activities of demonstrators in nearly 20 states, according to the ACLU. Several states -- among them North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee -- have passed such bills into law.
North Dakota passed into law bills that criminalised protests on private property, increased penalties for riot offences and barred demonstrators from wearing masks to conceal their identities, among others.
In Oklahoma, new laws ostensibly made it possible for authorities to hold anyone arrested for trespassing financially accountable for any damages to property and punished protesters who knowingly trespass on "critical infrastructure".
In Tennessee, a new law known as SB 902 introduced a $200 fine for protesters who obstruct the access of emergency vehicles, while South Dakota's SB 176 expanded the abilities of authorities to limit or block protests on public land and highways.
This month, Durham County, North Carolina introduced a new proposal that would require protesters to give 48-hour notice before holding any demonstration on publicly owned land.
"The wave of anti-speech fury on the part of prosecutors, law enforcement and political forces will pass; but that's not to say that we should be complacent with it and think it will pass without hard work," Michelman concluded. "Free speech is deeply ingrained in our political and social fabric, and people are going to continue to raise their voices for it."
Donald Trump Suggests He Wants US Law to Limit
Free Speech in Wake of Publication of Explosive New Book
Chris Stevenson International Editor / The Independent
(January 6, 2018) -- President Donald Trump has hit out at "very weak" libel laws in the US as he branded an explosive new book detailing the inner workings of the White House as "fiction".
Suggesting he would like to see tougher laws on speech, Mr. Trump said that if libel laws "were strong . . . you wouldn't have things like that happen where you can say whatever comes into your head" -- referring to Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.
The book has caused a storm of controversy and has left the President facing questions about his mental state, with quotes in Fire and Fury -- including from Mr. Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon -- suggesting that even those close to Mr. Trump had questioned his capability.
Early on Saturday, Mr. Trump wrote a string of messages on Twitter where he rejected such claims, saying he was a "very stable genius" whose two greatest assets are his "mental stability and being, like, really smart".
Mr. Wolff's new book, which has shot to the top of the bestseller list on Amazon after being released four days early, has clearly riled the President and he used a rare news conference during a retreat with Republican leadership to reinforce what he sees as a stellar list of life achievements.
Answering a question about why he saw the need to tweet about his mental state, Mr. Trump said that he had attended "the best college" and was an "excellent" student. He added that he came out of college and "made billions and billions of dollars . . . [and] became one of the best business people" before touting his "tremendous success" over a decade on television. He went on to add that he "ran for President one time, and won".
Mr. Trump also called Mr. Wolff a "fraud" and the book "a complete work of fiction", saying that "he doesn't know me at all" and said that he had not been interviewed in the White House as Mr. Wolff had said. He later admitted that he had spoken to Mr. Wolff during his presidential campaign.
The gathering at Camp David, with a number of members of his cabinet, is supposed to be a weekend for Mr. Trump to concentrate on their agenda for 2018. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan were also present for the two days of talks, with the Republican party facing a battle to keep control of the US Congress in November's elections.
At the beginning of his remarks, Mr. Trump described having some "incredible meetings" with colleagues, saying the party was readying its 2018 legislative agenda.
He said the group, 10 of whom were on stage with him, the only woman being Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, discussed a variety of topics, from national security and infrastructure to the military and the budget.
Mr. Trump said: "We are very well prepared for the coming year." He added that his administration "finished very strong," referring to the passing of a tax reform bill in December that marked the biggest overhaul of the tax code in nearly three decades.
However, with the President taking a number of questions from the assembled journalists -- another rarity for Mr. Trump -- attention soon turned back to Mr. Wolff's book.
A lawyer for Mr. Trump had sent a letter calling for its publisher not to release the book -- but it did so anyway about a day later.
Mr. Trump has labelled Mr. Bannon "sloppy Steve", and issued a furious statement over his quotes in Fire and Fury earlier in the week after a number of reports appeared about the contents of the book. The President continued in that vein as he spoke about Mr. Wolff while answering the question about his mental state.
"I don't know this man. I guess sloppy Steve brought him in the White House quite a bit and it was one of those things. That's why sloppy Steve is now looking for a job," Mr. Trump said.
In one of his morning tweets, the President said critics were "taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence." Mr. Trump added that going from successful businessman to reality TV star to President on his first try "would qualify as not smart, but genius . . . . and a very stable genius at that!"
Former President Reagan died in 2004, at age 93, from pneumonia complicated by the Alzheimer's disease that had progressively clouded his mind. At times during his time in the White House Mr. Reagan would appear to lose his train of thought, but his diagnosis came years after he left the Oval Office.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told reporters at Camp David that Mr. Trump did not seem angry about the book and on Friday night had watched a new film, The Greatest Showman ,about legendary circus promoter P. T. Barnum, with Republicans and his cabinet.
Once beyond the issue of Mr. Wolff during his news conference, Mr. Trump opened up about a number of other topics. The President said he would "absolutely" be willing to talk on the phone to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and that he hopes a positive development results from talks between North Korea and South Korea.
Pyongyang agreed on Friday to hold official talks with South Korea next week, the first in more than two years, hours after Washington and Seoul delayed a military exercise amid a standoff over the Kim regime's nuclear and missile programmes.
The talks between North Korea and South Korea are expected to cover the Winter Olympics, to be held in South Korea next month, and inter-Korean relations.
"Look, right now they're talking Olympics. It's a start, it's big start. If I weren't involved they wouldn't be talking at all right now," Mr. Trump said, but made clear his stance. Mr. Kim "knows I'm not messing around. I'm not messing around. Not even a little bit, not even 1 per cent. He understands that," he said. "If something can come out of those talks, that would be a great thing for all of humanity, that would be a great thing for the world," he added.
Mr. Trump has given Congress until March to come up with legislation to protect hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the country illegally, who have been shielded from deportation and given the right to work under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme he has phased out.
Talking about the issue on Saturday, Mr. Trump said he would not sign such legislation -- a priority for Democrats -- unless Congress agrees to overhaul the legal immigration system.
He said any deal must include an overhaul of the family-based immigration system as well as an end to the diversity visa lottery, which draws immigrants from under-represented parts of the world. "We all want DACA to happen, but we also want great security for our country," he added.
Moving onto the mid-term elections in November, Mr. Trump says he would be "very involved" with both House and Senate races, and will campaign for incumbents and "anybody else that has my kind of thinking."
After a stinging Republican loss in Alabama, where Mr. Trump supported Roy Moore, who lost to Democrat Doug Jones, the President said he will no longer support challengers, declaring: "I don't see that happening."
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