By Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director
During the past several days the feud between President Trump and the NFL regarding many of its players taking a knee during the national anthem has deepened an already divisive debate about the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and expression. The news coverage has been intense.
Recent unrest in St. Louis, Charlottesville, Berkeley, and other cities has deepened an already divisive debate about the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom to peaceably assemble. The news coverage has been intense.
And, the assaults and arrests targeting several journalists during the unrest in some of those cities has deepened an already divisive debate about the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press. The outrage expressed by the RTDNA Voice of the First Amendment Task Force and other press freedom organizations has been intense.
Flying under the radar of all of this has been a steady increase in efforts in many states to squelch public protests, an effort quite possibly borne out of the protests and rioting that followed the shootings of African-Americans by white police officers and others, which became more frequent three years ago. Perhaps they were borne out of the protests surrounding the 2016 election cycle. Or, perhaps it was a combination of the two.
Regardless, even before St. Louis, Charlottesville and Berkeley, the civil liberties group National Lawyers Guild had documented legislation filed since 2016 in at least 19 states, all aimed at putting restrictions on people’s right to express their beliefs during public gatherings. Among the bills proposed in statehouses around the country:
- Increasing the punishment for protestors who impede traffic, and who tamper with or trespass on infrastructure, e.g., railways, pipelines, etc.
- Making it illegal to wear a mask during a protest
- Enhancing fines and jail time for refusing to leave what police deem an “unlawful protest”
- Forcing protestors and their organizers to reimburse police and other first responders for costs they incur monitoring or responding to protests
- Allowing businesses to sue people who picket their stores or offices
- Requiring community colleges to expel students who participate in “violent riots”
While none of these bills, some of which later fizzled, represent a full frontal assault on journalists’ rights, they should be of extreme concern to anyone who works every day to fulfill their Constitutionally-guaranteed duty to seek and report the truth to the public. They should also worry anyone who values the freedom of the press or any other aspect of the First Amendment in General.
Because during his campaign, and also while in the White House, President Trump has floated the idea and, according to former chief of staff Reince Priebus, has seriously considered proposals to change libel laws in order to make it easier to sue responsible journalists for reporting stories that may contain factual errors, even when those errors are promptly corrected.
Since there is no federal libel law, the only way to put libel suit bullseyes on journalists’ backs is to do so through the individual state legislatures. That’s exactly what lawmakers in at least 19 states have been attempting to do as it relates to restricting protestors’ rights.
I dread, yet fully expect, that we will be next.
RTDNA’s Voice of the First Amendment Task Force does not take sides on issues that lead to protests or civil unrest. However, it does fight forcefully against efforts to restrict press freedom including attempts at obstruction, harassment, threats, arrests and assaults. So far this year at least 23 journalists have been arrested and at least 24 have been assaulted merely for doing their jobs.
The task force will also fight forcefully against attempts in any city hall or statehouse to trample on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press.
RTDNA formed the nonpartisan Voice of the First Amendment Task Force early this year to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to help the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. It is a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the archive of record for threats to press freedom in America.