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First They Came For Acosta. Why We Sued Trump Before He Acts Again (Opinion)

It didn’t start with Jim Acosta, but we might be able to end it here.

Last week, President Trump and his White House followed through on longstanding threats by revoking reporter Jim Acosta’s press credentials in retaliation for his doing his job. After enduring similar threats and retaliation during Trump’s campaign and presidency, CNN sued and has won an initial ruling in federal court, putting rails on what the White House can do to ban journalists. This is a necessary yet insufficient action to force the President to honor the First Amendment.

This President has done far more than retaliate against one White House reporter. Rather, he has mounted a sustained campaign of retaliation and threats against an array of journalists and media companies he perceives as critics, ranging from interfering with a merger to threats to revoke media broadcast licenses.

This President has demonstrated time and again that, no matter the damage to our democracy, he will make outrageous, chilling, and dangerous remarks to and about journalists. He has that right and nothing in sight will stop him. But when he and his administration take action to curtail the exercise of First Amendment rights, it has not only gone too far morally, it has gone too far legally.

That’s why PEN America, an organization of writers and literary professionals whose mission is celebrating and defending free expression, sued President Trump in federal court to stop him. And it’s why Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit with a mission to prevent our democracy from sliding into autocracy, is representing PEN America along with the Yale Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, going after President Trump in federal court to stop him.

We are suing President Trump for using the levers of government power he oversees to punish the media for coverage he dislikes, not for his verbal attacks on the press. The President’s retaliatory actions toward news entities harken not just back to the McCarthy era, when the creative community was directly targeted by the government, they are straight out of the modern authoritarian’s playbook. Where Trump has his “enemy of the people,” Stalin had his “vrag naroda” (enemy of the nation). Where Trump has his “lying media,” Hitler had his “lugenpresse” (lying press).

Dating back to his campaign, Trump repeatedly impugned CNN’s coverage of him, calling it “Fake News” and “garbage,” even using violent imagery to do so. He repeatedly threatened to stop CNN’s parent company’s merger with AT&T. Once he became president, Trump followed through on those threats with action when the Justice Department, under the leadership of a Trump political appointee, sued to block the merger.

The retaliation by the President against CNN was the harbinger of what followed: denigration of the Washington Post, strikes against its owner Jeff Bezos and Amazon, and then directives to the Postal Service to raise Amazon’s parcel shipping rates; attacks against NBC and a threat to revoke its broadcast license. Nearly daily, the President has vilified the White House press corps, threatened to suspend credentials, banned reporters from events, and, finally, kicked Jim Acosta out of the White House simply for doing his job.

We are heartened that this last action prompted Acosta and CNN to file their own suit to get Acosta’s credential back and to stop the President from revoking others. But all of the President’s First Amendment violations must stop.

While Jim Acosta has the support of CNN, there are many freelancers and other people who work for smaller outlets, who are disproportionately racial or religious minorities, or who do not have the same resources with which to defend themselves.

All of this is happening against the distressing backdrop of the White House turning a blind eye toward the brutal murder by Saudi Arabia of Washington Post journalist, American resident, and Trump critic, Jamal Khashoggi. It happens against the backdrop of an ardent Trump supporter being arrested for attempting to kill multiple Trump critics with pipe bombs, including employees at CNN. And through it all, the President has continued to deploy and encourage violent rhetoric against journalists.

These are dangerous times for the press and for the survival of our democracy. All Americans who create art, speak in public, participate in politics, or in any other way express their opinions should care about protecting the First Amendment and have a duty to take action.

America has long celebrated courageous journalists and lionized those who hold the powerful
accountable. They are foundational to our democracy. Today, many courageous journalists put themselves on the line to hold power to account. But they must do so in the face of threats that our government may retaliate against them.

The American government should never cause a writer to think twice about what she writes, a photographer to think twice about what she shoots, a filmmaker to think twice about what she produces — much less cause any of us not to tell the stories we want to tell.

All Americans have the freedom to hear from the voices they choose to listen to, not just those chosen by the government. We are at risk of sliding toward a world in which that freedom is curtailed. The First Amendment will only hold up to these assaults if we fight for it. Our lawsuit is a key battle in this effort to protect our democracy.

Jeff Berman is the co-founder of Magnet Companies and a board member of Protect Democracy. Jennifer Boylan is the Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence and Professor of English at Barnard College of Columbia University and a member of the PEN America Board of Trustees.

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