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The Bill of Rights reaffirms basic protections for individuals.
Americans have long been proud of that Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment.
Now the protections of the First Amendment are being threatened more critically than ever.
Since the election of Donald Trump as President, it faces challenges on all sides.

HELP US DEFEND THE FIRST AMENDMENT!

On June 18th , we’re sponsoring a screening of the documentary Merchants of Doubt, the troubling story of how a cadre of influential scientists with extensive political connections ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established knowledge about tobacco, acid rain, the ozone hole, global warming and DDT. The authors show how the ideology of free market fundamentalism, aided by a too compliant media, skewed public understanding of scientific facts to advance a political and economic agenda.

Please also see our resources:

RELIGION

The very first clause of the Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” (the establishment clause) is the basis for the requirement of the separation of church and state. However, Trump’s extremist followers are adamant that this is “a Christian country” and now they have their mouthpiece in the Justice Department: Attorney General Jeff Sessions continues to deny the separation of church and state, saying that is unconstitutional!

This diminution of the protection underlies Trump’s attempts to banish Muslim refugees and immigrants from entering the U.S. So far, the courts have refused to enforce his two executive orders attempting to implement this ban, but he keeps trying.

Trump also vows to eliminate the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits religious organizations from taking a position with respect to political candidates in order to maintain their tax-exempt status. On May 4, 2017, Trump signed an executive order which he said was meant to protect the free speech of religious people. Although the order didn’t go so far as to “meaningfully alter” the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process, Trump vowed again that he would destroy the Johnson Amendment.

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION - FREE SPEECH & FREE PRESS:

The Trump administration is terrified of the First Amendment because it is through free expression and free press that his lies and incompetence are exposed. Instead, Trump urges people to rely only on his own direct word, coming through his unchecked tweets or his rally-style speeches.

Since long before the election, Trump has tried to undermine the validity of the press, consistently condemning mainstream media as “fake news” and “liars.” He calls the press “the enemy of the people.” At one point, instead of regular press briefing, the White House press office “convened a meeting of reporters” but BARRED reporters of certain disfavored news organizations (e.g., the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, Buzzfeed).

Leaders like Senator John McCain and Admiral William McRaven have warned against the suppression of a free press as the greatest threat to democracy.

“We need a free press. We must have it. …. if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press …. Without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.” – John McCain, The Guardian, 2/19/17

If Trump has his way, the First Amendment will be gutted. His administration has admitted that they have “looked into” amending or even abolishing the 1st Amendment! They advocate the loosening of libel laws so that he can more easily sue people and the press for saying things that he doesn’t like; threatening such lawsuits has long been a Trump tactic and now, in the White House, he wants to “crack down” on the press.

More importantly, the Trump administration has ushered us into an era when facts are questioned and alternate realities are validated. As one reporter has put it:

“In the free marketplace of ideas, true ideas are supposed to compete with false ones until the truth wins -- at least according to a leading rationale for free speech. But what if the rise of fake news shows that, under current conditions, truth may not defeat falsehood in the market? That would start to make free speech look a whole lot less appealing. / The rise of fake news therefore poses a serious challenge to our basic ideas about the First Amendment.” – Noah Feldman, Bloomberg News

Our team stands for the principle that we must resist this devolution vigorously! As our first action, we put together a flyer to serve as a reminder that we - as consumers of media and information in general – must conscientiously READ AND THINK CRITICALLY to prevent further undermining of our culture. We’ll be updating this handout, but here is our first version. We encourage you to print it and hand it out to everyone everywhere!

THE RIGHT TO ASSEMBLE PEACEFULLY

Freedom of expression and the right of the people to peacefully assemble go hand in hand. These freedoms that we take for granted are both in peril. As part of the swing toward abolishing all things which the right-wing does not like, states have been trying to make laws that criminalize or suppress peaceful protest. At the time of this writing, North Carolina’s assembly passed a law that allows drivers to hit peaceful protestors who block the road, saying the drivers cannot be sued by the protestors. Arizona previously tried to impose racketeering and forfeiture laws on persons who organized protests that later turned violent (even if the violence wasn’t their fault).

The Free Speech movement that flourished in the 1960’s has also taken a curious turn. More and more extreme-right pundits have been voicing their racist, homophobic, and even fascist views. Though such views are often hateful and inflammatory, courts have ruled that (as long as they fall short of actually inciting violence), they are protected under the First Amendment. But a well-funded right-wing attack is using this freedom to undermine our freedoms.

Fueled by the supportive environment created by Trump’s campaign and election, money-backed speakers have increasingly tried to publicly flaunt these views in venues where they are likely to provoke animosity. They have targeted campuses such as UC Berkeley, where they invoke the right to freedom of speech and attract armies of people who are ready to engage in violence – both those on the extreme left who vow to “stop the fascism” and those right-wing “patriots” who claim to be “protecting” free speech. Knowing that the violence would get the media’s attention, the speakers’ messages become inflated and the image of discourse is overshadowed by images of violence and hate.

What we most fear is that the calculated escalation of violence actually ENDANGERS the freedom of expression and assembly. When violence is expected as a result of the free expression, it will ultimately leads to engagement of more and more police and militarized forces – including, as we have seen in the past - the National Guard. The danger of further suppression in order to “prevent violence” grows greater and greater. After seeing this happen in the past, it is reasonable to think that this may indeed be the underlying goal of some of the agitators.

Some of our team have partnered with local nonviolence groups to stand for peaceful assembly and we are continuously searching for ways to effectively counter the violent clashes.

THE RIGHT TO PETITION THE GOVERNMENT FOR REDRESS OF GRIEVANCES

Though we haven’t seen much on this last provision of the First Amendment yet, we need to be vigilant. For example, in the Dept. of HHS (led by Trump appointee Tom Price), an internal agency memo went out which “seemed” to restrict agency employees from communicating directly with Congress. On May 4, 2017, two senators wrote a letter criticizing the memo, pointing out how it would unlawfully violate the right to redress grievances because it contains no exception for lawful, protected communications and employees are likely to interpret it as a prohibition; the letter the states that the HHS should make the employees aware of their right to communicate directly with Congress. We have yet to see the result.

Finally, the ability to petition for redress of grievances is part and parcel of our right to freely protest. In calling for a protest against the House’s vote to repeal the ACA and impose “Trumpcare” instead, Nat Stein of Colorado Springs points out:

“Trumpcare is a crime against humanity and every elected official who voted in favor of this legislation needs to know where the American people truly stand. That is why necessity dictates that we the people once again express our right to peaceful public assembly and to petition our government for a redress of grievances by rallying in opposition to Trumpcare and in favor of a single-payer, medicare-for- all healthcare system.” (emphasis mine)

We encourage you join us in defending these fundamental First Amendment protections.

Follow us on this webpage and, if you want to be part of the team, send an email to firstamendment+subscribe@indivisibleberkeley.org.

  • By Paula Dodd Aiello, Team Lead