CIVICUS

MonitorTracking civic space

United States of America

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Last updated on 24.05.2019 at 12:36

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New Restrictions on White House press correspondents

New Restrictions on White House press correspondents

In early May 2019, the Trump administration implemented new standards for journalists to receive press credentials to attend White House press briefings, essentially revoking the passes for many longtime White House reporters.

Peaceful Assembly

On 7th May 2019, about 150 people gathered outside the state capitol in Atlanta to voice their opposition to a new law that effectively bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy in Georgia. The controversial “heartbeat bill” bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which in some cases, happens before the mother knows she is pregnant. “I have one message for you, Gov. Kemp: We will see you, sir, in court,” Staci Fox, of Planned Parenthood, told the group of protesters. Human rights groups, medical professionals and others have expressed concerns over the law and have vowed to continue their fight against it. Several prominent film companies have said they will halt production of popular shows and movies in the state if the law is not overturned. Similar legislation has been introduced or enacted in other states and is facing challenges in court.

On 10th May 2019, hundreds of anti-abortion activists rallied near a Planned Parenthood clinic in downtown Philadelphia after a video circulated of a local state representative confronting protesters outside the building. Billed as a “Rally Against Bullying,” the event was organised by Live Action, an anti-abortion group that says it were upset by the representative’s behavior. Carrying USA flags and signs with messages like “Pray to End Abortion" and “Mary Chose Life,” people listened to speeches by faith-based leaders. 

With people chanting and holding signs saying “release the report,” hundreds of people participated in a protest in Chicago on 4th April 2019 to demand that Attorney General William Barr release the full Mueller report. The protest was one of several held in cities across the country in response to Barr’s release of only a redacted version of Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 elections. In New York City, video shows hundreds of activists with the groups MoveOn and Rise and Resist hosting a rally in Times Square on 3rd April 2019.

For more than a month, activists supporting the Maduro government in Venezuela have been protesting from inside the country’s embassy in Washington, DC. Members of Code Pink and other activists occupied the building left vacant by Venezuelan diplomats in April 2019 after President Trump’s administration offered backing to opposition leader Juan Guaido. The protesters say Venezuelan diplomats gave them permission to enter the building and that they plan to stay there despite the city cutting off the building’s water and power. In response to law enforcement trying to remove protestors, Venezuela's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs for North America Carlos Ron said online, “the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has not authorised the entry of police officers into the former Embassy building in Washington, DC. This intrusion is yet another violation of international law by US authorities and an aggression against Venezuela.” Counter-protesters, are holding protests outside of the building and calling for the people inside to abandon the embassy.

On 26th April 2019, hundreds of people demonstrated and marched outside of the Wilson Building in Washington, DC, as part of a protest against the District’s failure to protect bicycle riders on city streets. The “Rally for Streets that Don’t Kill People” came one week after the deaths of Dave Salovesh, a local bike activist, on a street without a protected bike lane, and Abdul Seck, a pedestrian killed by a speeding driver. As part of the protest, cyclists from across the country laid down in the street, and activists read aloud the names of 128 people who have been killed on D.C. roads since 2015. According to reports, last year’s 36 fatalities were about 44 percent higher than in 2010.

On 1st May 2019, hundreds of people rallied in Portland in opposition to federal immigration enforcement policies. The event was organised by Occupy ICE PDX, a group fighting for immigrant justice, with many people chanting "No KKK, no fascist USA, no cops” and "ICE out of Portland.” According to social media posts, protesters played a recording of a crying child who had been taken into custody at the border and separated from her father, and protesters also pushed a large wooden crib with a baby doll. A small number of counter-protesters were also present but there were no reports of violence. May Day, also known as International Workers' Day, commonly includes rallies and marches over issues such as equality and unemployment.

On 25th March 2019, Kentucky’s largest school district turned over a list of teachers who participated in recent protests at the state capitol. The names were requested by Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis after Jefferson County Public Schools says they were forced to cancel classes due to teacher absences. Lewis could recommend that teachers who participated in the protest have their licenses suspended or revoked if he determines teachers misused sick leave. Teachers say they did not conduct a walk-out, but instead used their vacation days to protest proposals that the Kentucky legislature were considering that would change who manages the teachers’ pension fund.

In response to widespread protest over the construction of oil pipelines in the state, on 27th March 2019 the governor of North Dakota signed into law a series of bills designed to protect energy companies from public protests. Among the bills, S189 creates civil liability for “riot boosters,” allowing the state to sue any individual or organisation for encouraging a protest where acts of violence occur. That means individuals can now be held criminally or civilly liable even if they “do not personally participate in any riot but directs, advises, encourages, or solicits other persons participating in the riot.” The Oglala Sioux tribe is strongly opposed to the law. “We have a right to speak freely,” Chase Iron Eyes, Director of Public Relations for the Tribe told the Washington Post. “We have a right to peaceably assemble.” The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the state, saying the laws unconstitutionally target protected speech.

Expression

In early May 2019 the Trump administration implemented new standards for journalists to receive press credentials to attend White House press briefings, essentially revoking the passes for many longtime White House reporters. The new policy requires that for journalists to maintain their “hard pass,” they must have been in the building at least 90 of the past 180 days, including weekends. Almost the entire White House press corps would not meet the standard and reporters will only be granted access if given an exemption from the White House. Dana Milbank, a Washington Post reporter who has covered four presidents, said, “White House officials then chose which journalists would be granted ‘exceptions.’ It did this over objections from news organisations and the White House Correspondents’ Association.” It remains unclear who will have permission. This move as seen as another “attack” on the media by Trump who describes the media as the “enemy of the American people,” targets critical journalists and media outlets for retaliation and tells his supporters that credible reporting is “fake news”. 

On 21st March 2019, President Trump signed an executive order aimed at prioritising free speech on college campuses. The executive order, titled “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities,” will require colleges to certify that they are enforcing free speech standards in order to receive federal grant money. The order does not include the specific language higher education institutions are being told to agree to, nor does it include procedures for how the administration would define infringement on First Amendment rights or how its sanctions would be implemented. The order is widely seen as a symbolic gesture to the President's conservative base after several colleges refused to allow controversial speakers to hold events on their campuses. In a related story, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed a so-called “free speech” bill on 27th March 2019 that requires state universities and colleges to adopt policies respecting free speech.

On 11th April 2019, Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, was arrested by police in London on a U.S. extradition warrant. Assange had been living at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since he took asylum there in 2012. Hours after being extradited from the embassy, the Department of Justice charged Assange with one count of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion,” related to an attempt in 2010 to help whistle-blower Chelsea Manning hack a government computer to obtain classified information. It is unclear whether he will be extradited to the U.S. Free press advocates are alarmed by how the DOJ treats journalistic practices as part of a criminal conduct. “[I]t’s very troubling that the indictment sweeps in activities that are not just lawful but essential to press freedom — activities like cultivating sources, protecting sources’ identities, and communicating with sources securely,” says Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute.

On 18th March 2019, the State Department barred certain media organisations from a briefing call with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, stating that only “faith-based media” were permitted to participate. The topic of the briefing was “international religious freedom” in advance of the secretary’s trip to Beirut, Jerusalem, and Kuwait City. Reports also indicate that State department officials also refused to release a full transcript or a list of attendees. “It's perfectly fine to ensure faith-based media have a seat at such a table. But it's PR malpractice to cut off access to the broader press corps. I wish I could say I expected more from this crowd,” former State Department spokesperson John Kirby said.

On 11th April 2019, lawmakers in Illinois passed a bill that would impose major penalties on protests that impede pipeline construction and operations and hold organisations that support such protests liable. Because its definition of critical infrastructure is ambiguous, the bill also could lead to penalties for “damaging” property in a rail yard, trucking station, or even a telephone pole. Several environmental and civil rights groups have expressed opposition to the bill and over 3,000 people participated in a written protest against HB 1633. A similar bill in Texas- HB 3557 - would impose sanctions on peaceful civil disobedience at oil and gas sites. It is also being challenged for its restrictions of First Amendment-protected activities.

On 2nd April 2019, lawmakers in Georgia proposed a bill that would create a Journalism Ethics Board to be in charge of accrediting journalists and organisations, investigating and sanctioning journalists after complaints are filed by the public, and setting rules and standards to adhere to “factual and ethical reporting.” Richard T. Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, described the bill as unconstitutional and unnecessary. “Frankly, this is the kind of proposal one would expect to surface in a banana republic, not the peach state.” 

On 16th April 2019 members of the Tennessee Highway Patrol threatened several reporters with arrest and blocked them from reporting on a sit-in protest outside Governor Bill Lee’s office in Nashville. The officers told reporters they would be arrested if they did not leave, even after reporters identified themselves as members of the media. Natalie Allison of The Tennessean, described the encounter with troopers online, saying troopers threatened to arrest her and others if they didn’t leave the building immediately. Chris Walker, communications director for the governor, later released a statement in which he said, "[W]e do not condone threatening of arrest to reporters while they are doing their jobs in trying to cover news." In February 2019, Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers blocked reporters’ access to a capitol hallway protest about a confederate statue.

Association

On 28th March 2019, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution that requires member states to create criminal penalties for terrorist financing. With significant lobbying efforts by civil society organisations the measure includes safeguards for humanitarian activities, but requested for language on protection of peace-building and concerns about further bank de-risking of nonprofit organisations were not adopted. Resolution 2462 to “combat, criminalize financing of terrorists, their activities” states that countries must meet their obligations under international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law, noting that, the “failure to comply with these and other international obligations, including under the Charter of the United Nations, is one of the factors contributing to increased radicalization to violence and fosters a sense of impunity.” Civil society groups played an influential role in negotiations for the resolution, but caution that the freedom of association of groups operating in global hot spots could be affected.

Association in USA

Although the freedom of association is not expressly mentioned in the US constitution, the courts have made it clear that it is a constitutional right protected by the First Amendment and it is regulated through subsidiary laws at the state level.

Although the freedom of association is not expressly mentioned in the US constitution, the courts have made it clear that it is a constitutional right protected by the First Amendment and it is regulated through subsidiary laws at the state level. In practice, most associations operate without restriction, and the USA is home to every conceivable type of organisation, pursuing a wide range of agendas. However, cases of impunity for those involved in attacks on CSOs have been documented. In 2012, police refused to investigate the motive for an arson attack on the offices of Women with a Vision (WWAV), a women’s rights organisation that had also worked on police misconduct cases. Labour rights are also hampered by the government’s refusal to ensure that the right to form unions and strike extends to all segments of society. Less formalised social movements like the Occupy Movement and #BlackLivesMatter gained prominence in recent years and have suffered infiltration by law enforcement agencies and private actors trying to disrupt their legitimate, peaceful activism. Documents leaked in 2012 and 2014 show how the FBI and private actors attempted to monitor and infiltrate both movements, calling into question the role of law enforcement in defending commercial interests.

Peaceful Assembly in USA

Protests – both planned and spontaneous – are an integral part of civic life in the USA. Demonstrations on a wide range of issues take place every day throughout the country and most of them are peaceful and well-policed.

Protests – both planned and spontaneous – are an integral part of civic life in the USA. Demonstrations on a wide range of issues take place every day throughout the country and most of them are peaceful and well-policed. The shooting dead of unarmed black men including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, however, sparked a series of nationwide protests against the unlawful use of deadly force by police. Participants in some of those protests were intimidated by police in heavy-duty riot gear with military-grade weapons and equipment. Excessive force was actually used against demonstrators in some instances including the 2011 Occupy Movement and the 2014 Ferguson protests.The latter included the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators as well as assaults on journalists by the police. There have been additional concerns regarding the creation of ‘free speech zones’ by local authorities and some universities, where protestors are corralled into defined geographic spaces, often far from the places where they could be seen and heard. While regulations vary by state, in some places protestors are required to secure authorisation for specific forms of demonstration, including where amplification is used or where there will be a disruption to traffic circulation.

Expression in USA

The first amendment to the US constitution guarantees the freedom of speech. A wide interpretation of this right by the US Supreme Court has protected forms of speech that in other countries could be considered inflammatory or labelled as hate speech.

The first amendment to the US constitution guarantees the freedom of speech. A wide interpretation of this right by the US Supreme Court has protected forms of speech that in other countries could be considered inflammatory or labelled as hate speech. Press freedoms are also constitutionally guaranteed and the USA is home to innumerable national, state and local media outlets. The rapid expansion of Internet connectivity and online content in the last two decades has also created a new arena for unfettered interaction, the sharing of ideas, reporting – and surveillance. Information leaked in 2013 proved that the National Security Agency (NSA) was carrying out mass surveillance of electronic communications, revealing that the right to privacy of millions of US citizens had been seriously violated. Terrorist threats have been frequently invoked to justify many of these violations. The 2015 Freedom Act limited the scope of phone record collection and increased oversight over NSA surveillance activities. However the law has been criticised for failing to impede the justifications used by the US authorities to monitor the communications of people outside the US. The security of private communications has also recently been called into question as officials put pressure on technology companies to weaken encryption. Recently, the lack of protection for whistle blowers has raised serious concerns, with journalists noting that the current administration has prosecuted more leakers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all former presidents combined.