Recent protests against Donald Trump, particularly in Chicago, where he decided to cancel a rally after protesters massed inside and outside of the University of Illinois-Chicago, have led to a great deal of debate (and handwringing) by progressives about free speech. Those debates are worth having, but they risk distracting from a more important fact: Since he announced his campaign in June 2015, Donald Trump has been waging a subtle war against the First Amendment.
This battle has evaded the attention of a media that often seems more interested in the size of the Donald’s hands than the dangerous content of his words. Either while stumping or in campaign promises, Trump has infringed upon many of the righst guaranteed in the First Amendment. Here are four ways he has done it.
1. He Doesn’t Respect the First Amendment’s Religious Guarantees
One of Trump’s chief enemies in the Constitution is the right to free exercise of religion. This right clashes with his anti-Muslim hatred, which he seeks to codify by banning Muslim immigration, closing mosques and registering all Muslim Americans in a federal database. While some of this discrimination is more rightly considered a violation of the 14 th Amendment — which preserves the fundamental equal rights of all U.S. citizens regardless of race, religion, etc. — the threats to close mosques in particular also represent an infringement of the right to free exercise.
As for establishment of religion, Trump has drawn on a good deal of right-wing evangelical rhetoric about the “War on Christianity” on the few occasions he’s spoken about religion, often issuing statements that smack of state religion. He has stated that he will appoint judges to repeal the Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision making same-sex marriage the law of the land, and based this desire on his religious support for “traditional marriage.” He has also embraced Kim Davis’ refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses, itself an establishment of religion as law.
Fourty-four percent of Republicans support making Christianity the official religion of the United States, and thiry-six percent think Islam should be illegal, according to a PPP poll, so it’s not surprising that Trump is dipping into that rhetoric. Nonetheless, any actual attempt to enforce Christianity or discriminate against Muslims as law would be a blatant violation of the First Amendment.
2. Free Speech is a Rhetorical Tool for Him, Not a Right
Donald Trump is regularly confronted with speech that he doesn’t agree with, or even speech that challenges his policies and personalities. In reaction, he has displayed startlingly authoritarian tendencies, coming down hard against those who would critique him. Protestors at his rallies are forced to leave — often with violence incited by Trump himself. Whenever there is a chance that Trump’s speech will be challenged, he flees. This was visible in the case of his months-long refusal to speak to Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly after she criticized his sexism at the first GOP debate.
Many Trump supporters—and even moderate liberals—have said that the opposite is also true, that Trump’s own freedom of speech has been suppressed by protests. In fact, Trump’s decision to cancel his rally in Chicago was made solely because he wasn’t willing to enter a space where he had total control of the message. Despite his campaign’s assertion that the Chicago police had recommended the cancellation on security grounds, the police department issued a statement saying they had done no such thing. The Chicago rally was an example of Trump fleeing others’ speech, not his own being suppressed.
As well, Trump promised during one debate that he’d look into ways to “close off the internet” in order to fight terrorism. While it’s unclear how such a thing would even be accomplished, this is a strategy reminiscent of that wielded by dictators in Egypt, Libya and Syria during the Arab Spring, when nationwide internet shutdowns went into effect to quell protests. Rand Paul, among others, has criticized this as unconstitutional and an obvious breach of the first amendment right to free speech.
3. He Restricts Press Freedom
Alongside free speech and free exercise of religion, the freedom of the press is no great friend of Trump either. He has attracted widespread condemnation for keeping reporters at his rallies in a pen, on threat of pulling their press credentials. Time photographer Chris Morris was choked and “violently thrown to the ground” for attempting to leave the press pen in late February.
More recently, Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields was physically attacked by Trump’s campaign manager when she tried to ask the candidate a question. Trump himself has made no secret of his antipathy for journalists either, saying of them in December: “Uh, let’s see. Eh, no, I wouldn’t. I would never kill them. But I do hate ’em, and some of them are such lying, disgusting people. It’s true.”
4. He Doesn’t Believe in the Right to Protest
Lastly, of course, Trump has fiercely attacked protestors at his rallies. He has scorned them, theorized they are operatives of ISIS, and had them evicted. This is, of course, his right, but it displays a callous disregard for “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” As well, Trump crosses the line when he calls for violence against protesters. Recently, he noted that “In the good old days this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat [protestors] very, very rough. And when they protested once, you know, they would not do it again so easily.”
Trump has been even more explicit in the past. “You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks,” he said at a rally in Las Vegas, after also admitting, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” At several rallies, he has even promised to cover the legal fees for supporters who assault protestors.
Given that a Trump presidency would likely be met with mass demonstrations on a scale not seen since the Bush years, his tendencies towards authoritarian crackdowns are very worrying.
Donald Trump is a man who has no respect for — or even much knowledge of — the document that founded the country he wants to lead. His policies and actions have indicated that the First Amendment will be no impediment to his hateful reign. Maybe it won’t be long into his presidency before we see Donald Trump v. First Amendment in court.
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