Divisive rhetoric fuels attacks on expression

Expression

Increasing threats and attacks against journalists and critics 

On 26th October 2018, a news van for a local TV station was set on fire in the station’s parking lot in Salinas, California. The police closed the case after failing to identify suspects or motive, but employees for KSBW TV Action News 8 expressed concern that it might be related to the country-wide wave of anti-media rhetoric and attacks aimed at journalists.

On 26th October 2018, a Florida man was arrested by police for allegedly sending at least 14 packages with improvised explosive devices to CNN’s offices in Atlanta and New York, and high-profile former officials such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. Cesar Sayoc faces at least 30 charges including the use of a weapon of mass destruction, illegal mailing of explosives, and the use of explosives to commit a felony. None of the devices detonated, and no one was injured. On 29th October 2018, another package addressed to CNN’s Atlanta headquarters was intercepted by law enforcement who say it was also likely sent by Sayoc. Additionally, the FBI contacted at least two LA Times journalists- Jenny Jarvie and Eli Stokols- to inform them that Sayoc had researched their names on the internet in the days leading up to his arrest. It was later revealed that Sayoc’s potential target list may have included over 100 politicians, journalists, and celebrities.

On 7th November 2018, an Arkansas man was arrested for allegedly making more than 40 threatening calls to CNN’s Atlanta office, including death threats against CNN anchor Don Lemon. According to media reports, Benjamin Matthews is facing five felony counts of terrorist threatening, nine misdemeanor counts of harassing communications, and four misdemeanor counts of second-degree terrorist threatening.

On 7th November 2018, the home of a Fox TV personality was allegedly vandalised by a group of protestors. According to media reports, people chanted anti-Fox news slogans and spray-painted an anarchist symbol on Tucker Carlson’s driveway. Members of a group called “Smash Racism D.C.” took credit for the protest. DC police who responded to the scene did not make any arrests but confiscated the protestors’ signs. Carlson described the incident as “chilling”.

Regressive decision regarding freedom of expression legislation 

On 8th November 2018, the Muscogee Nation, a Native American tribe in Oklahoma, repealed the reservation’s Independent Press Act and ended the editorial independence of Mvskoke Media, its news agency. Tribal leaders cited “negative stories” published by Mvskoke Media as basis for making the changes. Critics of the decision say it was done to silence criticism of the group’s leaders. The Independent Press Act was passed in 2015 to grant editorial independence to the tribe’s press, which had previously been overseen by the tribal government. The Oklahoma Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and FOI Oklahoma issued a statement rejecting the decision

"Under the current law, Mvskoke Media’s editorial board serves as a crucial buffer between the newsroom and the tribe’s government. The elimination of that safeguard opens the door for potentially reckless interference in the public’s right to know." 

Intimidation leads to self-censorship 

At least two U.S. based Jewish charities have admitted financially supporting a group that profiles and targets students and activists who support the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco both have reportedly given substantial donations to support Canary Mission, a group that collects information about BDS activists at universities and sends the information to Israeli officials and potential employers. Both foundations said they would no longer be funding Canary Mission. Haaretz reports that US citizens “upon arrival in Israel have reported that they were questioned about their political activity” based on their Canary profiles. The effect of being placed on the Canary’s blacklist is chilling. According to the Intercept, 43 percent of students and activists who are caught in Canary Mission’s crosshairs “have toned down their activism because of the blacklist, while 42 percent said they suffered acute anxiety from being placed on the website”. 

Journalist briefly held in detention 

On 4th November 2018, a Buzzfeed reporter was arrested in Seattle for trespassing while reporting on a local case involving a high-profile death. Blake Montgomery was allegedly arrested while outside of the home of a Dylan Hapertefen, a former partner of the deceased who says the reporter was harassing him with calls and emails for about a week. Montgomery was held in jail for one night and released the following day on $1,000 bail. The District Attorney later dropped the trespassing charge.

Presidential attacks on the media continue 

The president of the United States, Donald Trump continued his unprecedented attacks on the media by threatening to revoke the press passes of more reporters, setting new rules for White House press events that were widely criticised by press advocates, and insulting three female reporters after they asked questions at official press events. The White House says it plans on re-suspending CNN’s Jim Acosta’s press pass after CNN won a 14-day temporary restraining order restoring Acosta’s pass. On 7th November 2018, the White House suspended the press pass of CNN’s Jim Acosta after the president refused to answer his questions during a news conference in the White House as previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor. Over the next few days, Trump also referred to American Urban Radio Networks reporter April Ryan as a “loser,” called CNN reporter Abby Phillip’s question about the recently-appointed acting attorney general “stupid”, and responded to PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor’s question about the president describing himself as a ”nationalist” as “racist.” Asked about the president’s conduct at the press event, Phillips later said, "I followed up the president calling my question 'racist' with a policy question about his proposed middle-class tax cut because that's what journalists do. We press on. We focus on the privilege of asking questions for a living. We do the work". 

Other developments 

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could open the door for online users to sue social media companies for limiting free speech online. While the case before the court does not directly involve any social media companies, observers say it could potentially limit the ability of technology companies to control the content on their online platforms. The case, Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, centers on whether a private operator of a public access television network is considered a state actor, and could therefore be sued for First Amendment violations. While the First Amendment protects citizens against government efforts to limit speech, there are certain situations in which private companies can also be subject to First Amendment liability.

The Custom and Border Protection’s powers to conduct warrantless searches of electronic devices and questioning of journalists about their work and contacts puts press freedom at risk, claimed a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Nothing to declare: Why U.S. border agency’s vast stop and search powers undermine press freedom finds that the border agency’s invasive screening techniques and unwillingness to disclose which other government agencies it shares information with could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. The report is based on interviews with over two dozen journalists who said they found CBP’s secondary screenings and interviews  excessive. There is currently legislation before Congress that, if enacted, would restrict the powers CBP has to conduct electronic device searches of citizens and permanent residents.

Peaceful Assembly

On 13th October 2018, three members of a white nationalist group known as the Proud Boys were arrested a day after several members attacked people who gathered to protest the group’s leader speaking at the Metropolitan Club in New York City. Video of the incident shows a group of men violently kicking and punching at least one protestor on the street. After the incident, police arrested three protestors for allegedly attacking a person leaving the event, but did not arrest the members of the Proud Boys until public pressure mounted.

On 30th October 2018, hundreds of people demonstrated near Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue against President Trump’s visit to the city after a mass shooting left 11 people dead and six injured. As the Trumps paid their respects to the victims at the synagogue, protesters nearby shouted that the president was not welcome and held signs that said, "It's your fault" and "words matter". The man accused of committing the shooting, Robert Bowers, faces at least 29 charges. The attack is believed to be the deadliest on the Jewish community in US history.

In the wake of the president firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions on 7th November 2018, large crowds of people in cities around the country staged protests in support of special counsel Robert Mueller and the investigation he oversees. Many of the protests were part of a coordinated effort by liberal groups who for months have been planning a “rapid response” to protect the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. In New York, thousands of people gathered and chanted slogans including “Hands off Mueller” and “Nobody's above the law” before marching downtown. In Los Angeles, hundreds of people marched and held signs saying “Truth Must Triumph” and “Repeal, Replace Trump.”

On 24th November 2018, over 200 people marched at an Alabama shopping mall where police mistakenly killed a man after a shooting left two people wounded. Police initially said that Emantic Fitzerarld Bradford, Jr was involved in the incident before later admitting that he was not a suspect. As part of the protest, family and friends held a moment of silence for the 21 year old and demonstrators stood outside the shopping complex chanting, “The police lie. They lie. Stop shopping here. Not one more dime”. 

Google reportedly made changes to its sexual harassment policies after thousands of employees staged large protests against the tech giant on 1st November 2018. Coming in the wake of a New York Times' report that detailed how Google shielded executives accused of sexual misconduct, employees in more than 20 offices around the world staged walk-outs to protest "a workplace culture that's not working for everyone." Organisers of the walk-out demanded more transparency from Google around its handling of sexual harassment and pay and opportunity inequality. Employees in Singapore, Zurich, and London also participated in the protest.

Protest regulations 

After months of unrest in Portland, Oregon, the City Council voted to reject the mayor’s proposal to expand police powers and restrict protest in the city. By a vote of 3-2, the council said it would not adopt an ordinance that would allow the police commissioner to decide when, where, and how long competing demonstrations can take place. For months, white nationalist groups such as Patriot Prayer have been holding demonstrations and rallies in the city that often turn violent after clashing with counter protesters. ACLU of Oregon issued a statement saying

"We agree with the Mayor that violence in our streets is a problem needing urgent action - we just don't agree that the ordinance he proposed would have worked. We advocate for an alternative approach. Effectively addressing the rise of the alt-right in our city will require nuanced and varied strategies. We look forward to working with City and community leaders on a path forward: this threat is far too significant for those who want to combat it to stay divided."

Association

Court documents obtained by the Intercept reportedly show evidence that law enforcement agencies working near the U.S./Mexico border targeted volunteers of a faith-based charity in Tucson for assisting migrants. Several volunteers with No More Deaths, a coalition of religious and community activists who leave water for migrants crossing the desert, were harassed or arrested by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents following the release of a report accusing the agents of sabotaging water containers and other supplies. On the same day the report was made public, one volunteer was arrested and charged with “harboring illegal aliens,” and within a few days, at least seven more were charged with criminal offenses for leaving water in the desert. Lawyers representing the volunteers say court documents include text messages by border agents talking about targeting specific volunteers, and the U.S. Department of Justice moved to have that evidence sealed.