Red, White, and First Amendment Blues

One of the most fascinating and rapidly evolving news stories this week involves Nordstrom dropping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, citing poor sales as its reasoning. In case you missed this, here is more-or-less what happened: First it was a simple schadenfreude-laden headline, because the Trump dynasty loves selling things and also is historically bad at it. But the collective amusement turned into incredulous outrage when Trump censured Nordstrom’s from the POTUS account, in typical 45th fashion. Then we all watched a Spicer Double Down Special in yesterday’s press conference, when he referred to the business move as “a direct attack on [the President’s] policies.” And by the time Kellyanne Conway got around to literally advertising Ivanka’s product in her official capacity as a White House adviser today, nothing was surprising anymore.

I’ve seen a lot of people note Conway’s endorsement that was illegal (which it was), that this whole story illustrates Trump’s inherent conflict of interest (which it does), and also that Spicer apparently doesn’t know what the word ‘direct’ means (which he doesn’t). But I also think this is the latest in a larger picture issue, and I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it. And that issue is that this administration is launching a systemic assault on the First Amendment.

What does Trump’s conflict of interest have to do with the First Amendment?

I’m glad you ask, Hypothetical Person in My Head! The key is both Trump and his proxy Spicer censuring Nordstrom’s business decision. The groundwork was laid when Trump criticized Nordstrom’s business decision from the POTUS account, saying: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. . . . Terrible!” This is because a statement from an official account that something was “unfair” can be reasonably read to carry an implicit threat. But that idea wasn’t fully developed until Spicer said this in the press conference yesterday: “There are clearly efforts to undermine [Ivanka’s] name based on her father’s positions on particular policies that he’s taken. This is a direct attack on his policies.” And it’s when a business decision becomes an “attack” on Presidential policies that the larger picture about the First Amendment starts to take shape. As it happens, these statements taken together tread awfully close to Nordstrom’s right to freedom of speech — specifically its freedom of association and freedom of expressive conduct (And also its freedom to contract, but that’s a whole other ball of wax.).

A Brief First Amendment Primer

For those of you playing the home game, the First Amendment contains more-or-less five basic rights:

  1. Freedom of the press;
  2. Freedom of speech;
  3. Freedom of religion (encompassing both the right to practice religion without government hindrance and the right to freedom from government laws “respecting a religious establishment”);
  4. Freedom to petition; and
  5. Freedom to peaceably assemble.

Though whole treatises could be (and have been) written on this topic, the main thing to take away for now is that the government generally cannot tread on these five things. That includes all branches of the federal government, not just Congress (which is what the First Amendment literally says), and thanks to the Fourteenth Amendment it includes state government as well. (Note that it does not, however, extend to that moderator on reddit who banned that one guy for using slurs, regardless of what that guy is yelling on 4chan.)

Okay, but One Tweet Isn’t an Attack

Good point, Other Hypothetical Person Also in My Head! But this is the part where I remind you that this wasn’t just one tweet in a vacuum — it’s just the latest part of a sustained, systemic effort. Let’s go through that list above, with an eye towards things this administration has done in the past as well as in the past few weeks, and see if they hit all of the First Amendment tickyboxes.

Freedom of the Press: Check. At this point, the 45th discrediting specific members of the press (and especially CNN) as “fake news” has become so commonplace that it’s a recurrent joke on Saturday Night Live. And that skit was hilarious, but it touches on a real phenomenon that’s pretty frightening: The idea that if you report displeasure with the President’s policies, you no longer get to count as real news. This is in addition to a growing rhetoric that the members of the fourth estate are enemies of the state generally, which is popping up in everything from serious allegations that the press is “refusing to cover” terrorist attacks to random statements attacking the “so-called media” over, of all things, reporting on a bathrobe. These statements, taken in tandem, paint a picture of this administration’s general desire to make Americans mistrust news in general.

Freedom of Speech: Check. I covered this one briefly above, but let’s spend a few more minutes on it. This administration has a long-established position of disliking First Amendment freedom of speech, which predates its assumption of office — from threatening to sue the people who stepped forward about sexual assault during his campaign to threatening to jail Hillary Clinton for telling ‘so many lies’ to threatening to remove citizenship for flag-burning. Since taking office, the administration has continued this trend, issuing a communications lockdown impeding executive government staff’s use of social media, demanding that park service officials retract tweets, and beginning to dismantle net neutrality. These actions, taken in tandem, suggest this administration wants people to fear speaking and relaying information freely in a variety of circumstances.

Freedom of Religion: Check. This administration has touched upon both the exercise clause and the establishment clause within the past few weeks. On the exercise end, mounting evidence is being considered by courts that the recent executive order is intended to curtail Muslim entry to the country due to specific Islamophobic animosity within the administration. On the establishment end, we have Trump threatening to dismantle the Johnson Amendment at the National Prayer Breakfast so that Christian organizations can participate more directly in politics, and promising to make persecuted Christians a political priority for immigration. None of this is a good sign, especially so early on in the Presidency.

Freedom to Petition: Check. This one is a more nebulous concept in some ways than the others, but the freedom to petition generally involves being able to talk to government directly about issues with governance. Political texts books often point to things like lobbying, letter-writing, e-mail campaigns, testifying before tribunals, filing lawsuits, supporting referenda, collecting signatures for ballot initiatives, peaceful protests, and picketing. It’s pretty closely tied to the freedom to assemble, which I’ll get to below. But things like shutting down the White House comment line, lying about the number of people who attended the Inauguration, the forcible follow of the POTUS account by 560,000 Twitter users, ignoring one of the most popular We the People petitions in history, and repeatedly attacking the judiciary branch all implicate the freedom to petition, and also all have happened in the past few weeks. Taken together, they suggest this administration wants to make it difficult for constituents as well as other branches of government to interact with its decisions.

Freedom to Assemble: Check. This right applies both to the right to protest and to the general right to associate with other people in things like unions. Though in general the Trump administration has been a bit cagey about this one, we do see early indications that we can expect future infringement of the right of assembly . Trump’s threat to cut federal funding over Berkeley protests is a mixed example at best, but his early description of protests as “unfair,” later description of Madonna’s statements at the Women’s March as “disgraceful to our country,” and more recent iterative rhetoric that protesters are being ‘paid’ all paint a larger picture that can be separated from the violence associated with the Berkeley news. And they come at a time when several state legislators are suggesting criminalizing protest. These things suggest a broader stance against protest generally.

Why does all of this matter?

It matters because the First Amendment collectively is an important check on centralized government process. The Founding Fathers knew this — the anti-federalists fought so hard for a Bill of Rights because they wanted to have a system in place that could slow the federalist machine and prevent it from steamrolling human rights. It’s not a coincidence that the First Amendment is, well, first.

And a natural extension of that is that a healthy enforcement of the Bill of Rights, and the First Amendment in particular, prevents a lot of the hallmarks of fascism from finding purchase (particularly the intertwining of government and religion, controlled mass media, suppression of labor power, and censorship of the arts). It’s a foundational part of American history, and one of the things that does, in fact, make America great. We’ve seen a lot of discussion about whether Trump’s administration is ushering in an era of fascism, and I personally believe that it is. In order for a nascent fascist state to take root in the United States, the Bill of Rights and especially the First Amendment (along with the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth) need to be bludgeoned into submission. And we’re watching it happen, one tweet at a time.

What can we be doing? (Besides getting the 45th to stop tweeting. That isn’t going to happen.)

Okay, you raise a compelling counterpoint, Final Hypothetical Person, despite the noted disadvantage of not actually existing. But there are things we can be doing nonetheless!

  • Resist normalization of deviance. This is basically just a fancy sociological way of saying that there is real actual societal value in stamping “This Isn’t Normal” on your forehead and yelling it every time something infringes on a First Amendment right. On a related note, Amy Siskind recommends keeping a list of all of the things you notice changing around you — experts say this can be a very effective technique for resisting normalization. She keeps a weekly list herself, and you can read this past week’s here.
  • Continue to exercise your own rights, especially the last two. Protest things! Sign petitions! Call your senators and yell a lot! Obviously, this is easier for some people than others, but one very real way to preserve rights is to exercise them.
  • Keep track of the news. You can’t know your rights are being infringed if you aren’t paying attention — but more importantly, you also don’t know when your rights are being protected. The Ninth Circuit took a big step towards protecting freedom of religion today, though that fight is far from over, and that’s really helpful to know — it’s a form of petition being successfully preserved, at least so far.
  • Take care of yourself. It’s the best way to keep on fighting.

And on that note, I am going to take my own advice, and save writing about today’s three executive orders for tomorrow. Self-care, folks. It’s a thing. But you’ll hear from me again soon!

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