Trump’s Use and Regulation of Free Speech Protections Reveal an Alarming Contradiction

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

The U.S. Constitution has served as a bedrock to our country’s culture, democracy, and standing as a beacon in the world. A cornerstone of the First Amendment, one of the strongest guardians of American citizens’ rights, is the freedom of speech and press, which includes the ability of journalists to freely report on the government and its actions – including those of the president. And yet, in 2018, the U.S. was added to the Reporters Without Borders list of the most dangerous countries for journalists.

Donald Trump’s actions as president directly correspond with this declaration.

Trump’s relationship with free speech and the First Amendment has been somewhat rocky, to say the least, throughout his election and presidency. A large part of Trump’s success in becoming president was his ability to reach out to voters directly and voice his opinions on virtually any topic through rallies and social media.

Throughout his campaign he repeatedly stated that he believed President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and claimed that Obama’s birth certificate was fake, without any evidence to defend that claim. Inaccurate and offensive statements like this on social media continued to be integral to Trump’s presidency.

After all, his campaign began with a bang:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Trump has consistently defended his and his supporters’ right to free speech. In late 2019, Trump hosted a social media and free speech summit at the White House, where he hosted many “digital leaders” to discuss how their voices were silenced by social media platforms. The majority present were QAnon – a conspiracy that “deep state” is trying to overthrow Trump – theorists like Jim Hoft, the founder of “the Gateway Pundit,” a far right conspiracy theory website known for spreading hoaxes and conservatives like Bill Mitchell, a Republican political commentator on Youtube. There were even Republican meme creators, who are known for insulting Democratic politicians like the owners of @mad_liberals and @CarpeDonktum, whose account was deactivated by Twitter for violating hate speech rules. Trump claimed he hosted the summit to advocate against bias online, but many argue that it was only done to support conservative free speech, as, notably, there were no Democratic or liberal-leaning invitees.

Even though much of Trump’s free speech is factually incorrect, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have not applied checks that are consistent with their policies to his statements. Many of Trump’s tweets have violated Twitter’s guidelines, but haven’t been taken down. If others made the same statements they may have been removed or censored from these platforms (just as @CarpeDonktum was). In fact, a few weeks ago a Twitter account was created, called @SuspendThePres, which tweeted, as an experiment, the exact same things the president did. The user posted the same controversial tweet Trump posted, “when the looting starts the shooting starts,” and the account was suspended, while Trump’s tweet was still visible. The account also posted two other identical tweets which were taken down.

There are, however, two recent exceptions. When Trump made an unsubstantiated claim that mail-in ballots would result in voter fraud and a rigged election, on May 26, Twitter put a fact check on his tweet, reading “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.” Trump also made inflammatory comments on Twitter surrounding the Black Lives Matter riots in Minneapolis. On May 29, He posted a controversial tweet calling the rioters in Minneapolis “thugs” and used the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” In response, Twitter issued a “glorifying violence” label on this tweet, in accordance with their policy. Subsequently, Trump signed an executive order on May 28, many argue in retaliation to Twitter, which called for social media to remove almost all online censorship. What this Executive Order aimed to do was reverse an action Congress had already taken.

In 1996, Congress passed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which ensured social media companies, like Twitter, were not held liable for anything their users post on their platform. This rule has allowed free speech to flourish on social media platforms. It also allowed these companies to regulate what their users said if it is consistent with their stated policies. For example, it allowed a company like Instagram to delete an account if racial slurs or death threats were posted. This Executive Order increases regulation on social media platforms, limits their protections, and limits their ability to regulate users. Trump’s executive order is ultimately likely to lessen free speech, rather than defend it: it could prevent social media companies from exercising their First Amendment rights to moderate what Trump says out of fear of punishment or retaliation from the government. In addition, it could also discourage users of these platforms to criticize the President, and speak their opinion, as they might be verbally attacked by Trump.

In addition, while the President has defended his right to free speech, he has taken aggressive actions to limit the free speech of his detractors. For example, the Trump administration has tried to stop the release of books that have been critical of the president and the administration, claiming a national security threat. Recently, John Bolton released the book “The Room Where It Happened,” detailing his experiences with Trump. Bolton’s book, for example, claims Trump was unfit as President, because he took actions like asking China for election help and supported Chinese “concentration camps” for Muslims. Trump’s niece, Mary L. Trump also recently wrote a tell-all book about Trump and his family. Trump attempted to file lawsuits against his niece and Bolton. Both were rejected.

Trump has also repeatedly shown his disdain for the media and even went as far as calling it the “the enemy of the people.” Since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, Americans’ trust in the media has dropped down to 41%. He has consistently questioned the validity of news outlets that have provided any coverage critical of him. For example, on June 10, he demanded CNN apologize for releasing polls which showed him well behind his 2020 presidential race opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump has consistently defended free speech and it has been an integral part of his presidency, as he uses Twitter and other platforms to speak his mind to the general public. However, at the same time, he has used his power to restrict free speech of his detractors, attempting to make“fake news” and mass media the new enemy of the American people. Unfortunately, the President seems to think that the First Amendment may only apply to one group of people – Donald Trump and his supporters.

THROUGH TEEN LENSES

What impact do you think Donald Trump has had on free speech in America? What role do you believe the president should have in establishing 1st Amendment protections?

“Donald Trump is the first President in modern history to utilize social media as a platform to express personal experiences and opinions, often criticizing those with disparaging views of him. This greatly marginalizes the voices of the oppressed, where many are in fear of speaking out to incur the berating of the president. Also, blatantly calling out valid news organizations because they undermine his agenda diminishes his credibility. People are inclined to make rash judgments without considering fact-based evidence because Trump simply nullifies it. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re in an authoritarian government being censored, but it certainly showcases free speech being attacked through mainstream media. The president should be amplifying all stakeholders’ opinions by taking them into account through his policies rather than have a narrow-minded viewpoint that leads to rebukes and dissent. The president should also be more conscious of what is being publicly stated on social media (e.g Donald Trump calling mail-in ballots fraudulent even though there’s no evidence of that). False claims especially made by the president leads to false accusations and falsehoods that the public easily consumes to their daily verbiage.” Sean Nguyen, Rising Senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
“I think that Donald Trump has had a pretty ironic impact on free speech in America. As a president, he has tried countless times to suppress free speech and cover up his actions but as a result the people have voiced their concerns and protests even louder than before. Overall his presidency obviously had some pretty bad effects since he’s tried too hard to suppress free speech but on the bright side we’ve seen more activism because of it. The president’s role is to protect and the rights of the First Amendment – that’s it. It’s not his/her choice to decide what those rights are since that power lies with the Supreme Court. It’s also not the president’s job to take action to change the first amendment. That power is given to the legislature and the people who elect them. Ultimately, the president is the one who facilitates the freedoms given to us by the First Amendment and makes sure that we can use them freely.” Evan Williams, Rising Freshman at Purdue University
“I think he’s extremely biased and prejudiced which clearly shows in his speech. What you see from his tweets is that he promotes people exercising their 1st Amendment rights when those people have views that support him. When people have differing views, however, the president tends to bash on them for disagreeing or speaking out/protesting against him. You can see this in how he called armed white people protesting stay-at-home orders from good people who are just “frustrated” but called the actually frustrated black people “thugs”. Though I understand that what he does is exercising free speech in a sense, I think he tries to more so silence the voices of people who disagree with him than just simply address them. A president should encourage EVERYONE to exercise their first amendment rights regardless of their views, as long as it doesn’t infringe on other people’s rights or safety. Like in Charlottesville, the president said there were good people on both sides, when one side had members of the KKK and white supremacists. I think that encouraged those people to continue using “free speech” as an excuse to put others (in this case, people of color) down.” Student at McLean High School, who preferred to stay anonymous