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The Trump Administration Must Stop Censoring Free Speech

free speech - the authors guild
free speech - the authors guild

Yet again, the Authors Guild must speak out against President Trump’s efforts to censor speech by threatening and bringing frivolous libel lawsuits. On February 26, the president earned the infamy of being the first sitting president to file a defamation lawsuit. His campaign filed a defamation complaint against The New York Times in the New York State Supreme Court, alleging that an opinion piece published in March 2019 included “false and defamatory statements” about the campaign “because of The Times’ extreme bias against and animosity toward the Campaign, and The Times’ exuberance to improperly influence the presidential election in November 2020.” The New York Times announced that it intended to fight the lawsuit; Eileen Murphy, a New York Times spokeswoman said, “The Trump campaign has turned to the courts to try to punish an opinion writer for having an opinion they find unacceptable.”

Continuing his litigious spree, on March 3, the Trump campaign brought a libel action against The Washington Post based on opinion pieces published in June 2019 by Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent, alleging that “[t]here is extensive evidence that The Post is extremely biased against the Campaign and against Republicans in general.” To further demonstrate that these lawsuits are prompted by a desire to quash speech critical of the current administration, the campaign alleges as part of its “extensive evidence” of bias that Paul Waldman “has authored numerous anti-Trump articles and formerly worked for Media Matters for America, an activist organization which is sharply critical of the administration.”

News and opinion are highly protected speech under U.S. law, particularly when the subject is a  major public official.  Trump and his lawyers know that there is zero chance of prevailing in these suits or any of the earlier threatened defamation suits that Trump has brought just since he has been president. Continuing the litigious bullying tactics he learned earlier in his career (Trump and his companies filed over 1900 lawsuits before he was elected), these defamation claims are an abusive use of the legal system, meant to silence, financially harm and discredit the news organizations and writers. 

Along similar lines, just a few weeks ago, the White House tried to censor John Bolton’s upcoming book, The Room Where It Happened, claiming there is a great deal of classified material in the book. On February 21, The Washington Post reported that “the president has insisted to aides that Bolton’s account of his work in Trump’s White House…should not see the light of day before the November election.” While we understand that there are reasons that classified material should not be released to the public, the delayed review appears more grounded in a desire to silence speech that the president interprets as criticism by mischaracterizing it as classified information. Simon & Schuster has stated that it still intends to publish the book, but announced on March 3 that the publication date would be delayed from March 17 to May 12, because of the ongoing government security review.

It is appalling that we all must continue to speak out against this disturbing trend by the current administration to silence critical speech. In January 2018, Henry Holt/Macmillan refused to submit to a cease and desist letter alleging that Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury defamed Trump, and in August 2018, Simon & Schuster likewise refused to cease publication of Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House. In November 2019, the Department of Justice wrote to Hachette to urge the publisher to provide identifying information about the anonymous author of A Warning, another tell-all account of the inner workings of the Trump White House. These types of baseless defamation claims by a sitting president are an outrageous interference with freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

As we said when Trump’s lawyers sent a cease and desist letter to block Fire and Fury, “The ability to criticize the government and its leaders lies at the essence of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.” We firmly stand against these ongoing efforts to use the defamation law to prevent or discredit speech.  Such behavior is shameful and should not be tolerated from anyone, let alone the U.S.  president. As Authors Guild President Douglas Preston says, “Our founders believed that vigorous and free debate from all sides was vital to our democracy, and they enshrined that conviction in the Constitution. The administration’s effort to quash debate, censor books and punish political views it doesn’t like is profoundly un-American.”

Editorial photo credit: Christopher Penler /