December 05, 2018

Panelists assess Trump’s tweet-storms in free speech discussion

Legal experts gathered on Nov. 29 to discuss various First Amendment issues at the American Bar Association program, “Hot Topics in Free Speech and Free Press: New Controversies on the Slippery Slope,” in Washington, D.C.

Left to right: Moderator Stephen Wermiel, Panelists Robert Corn-Revere, Lata Nott and Scott Michelman

Left to right: Moderator Stephen Wermiel, Panelists Robert Corn-Revere, Lata Nott and Scott Michelman

Panelists focused on the recent challenges involving free speech and free press, most of which involve President Donald Trump’s anti-media tweets and threats to revoke media credentials, security clearances and broadcast licenses to get back at those who are critical of him.

Scott Michelman, legal co-director of ACLU of D.C., said Trump is his own worst enemy, adding that former presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon also went after media organizations that were not favorable to them, but did so without talking about it publicly.

Trump’s social media aggression has triggered a call for change. Lata Nott, executive director of Freedom Forum Institute First Amendment Center, said people on both sides of the political aisle are calling for regulation of content on social media.

Panelists agreed that legal lines are blurred when applying First Amendment protections in an internet age. They agreed that the rise of social media makes the courts work harder to maintain the neutrality of the First Amendment.

Michelman offered advice to those seeking to pick fights with Trump. He said “it is a dangerous time to be a protestor in the United States.” State legislatures and the Trump administration have taken aggressive actions against protestors, he said citing examples from protests at the Trump inauguration, where some protestors were charged with felonies.

Panelist Robert Corn-Revere, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine, believes that in these conflicts between the president and those who oppose him, ultimately, Trump won’t come up on top. Individuals have rights and governments have powers and most often in legal cases, “rights trump powers,” he said.

Free speech will continue to be a topic of discussion by the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, the co-sponsor of the program.  Moderator Stephen Wermiel, a professor at American University Washington College of Law and co-chair of the section’s Free Speech and Free Press Committee, said that CRSJ will explore the scope of student rights and protests at the Midyear Meeting in Las Vegas.  The program, “Tinker at 50: Student Rights at the Schoolhouse Gate and Beyond,” will highlight the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District that recognized that students have freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in public schools.  The program will take place on Jan. 26 from 2:30-4 p.m.

The panel for “Hot Topics in Free Speech and Free Press: New Controversies on the Slippery Slope” also discussed the legality of revoking press passes, the AT&T and Time Warner merger, and whether the effects of high postal fees for Amazon are political or legal matters.

To view the recording of the webinar, register here to receive the recording and related program materials.