PEN America v. Trump

Press freedom and the right to dissent are fundamental pillars of any healthy democracy. Virtually all autocrats therefore seek to suppress media criticism and quash dissent.  As democracy scholars have explained, modern autocrats rarely seek to ban speech outright; rather, they use the machinery of government to punish speech they dislike and reward speech they view as favorable, a tactic that often succeeds in creating a de facto state media. 

President Trump employed these tactics, beginning with threats to punish media critics, such as CNN, with politically motivated government enforcement actions during his campaign.  Once in office, he engaged in a pattern of retaliatory actions against media critics. Among those were: initiating a government review of postal rates to punish the owner of the Washington Post; directing Justice Department enforcement actions against media companies, including CNN’s parent company; interfering with White House press access and revoking White House press passes; threatening to revoke broadcast licenses; and threatening to revoke, and actually revoking, security clearances of media commentators.

Together with the Yale Law School Media Freedom of Information and Access Clinic and the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, Protect Democracy represented PEN America, a leading organization of writers and literary professionals, in a lawsuit alleging that Trump’s threats and retaliatory uses of government power to punish journalists and media commentators violated the First Amendment. PEN America prevailed on a motion to dismiss by the Trump administration, establishing an important basis for standing to sue by organizations like PEN, and settled the case after Trump’s electoral defeat.  

Case Documents
What Experts Are Saying

What Experts Are Saying

First Amendment experts share their concerns about President Trump’s retaliation against the press and their thoughts on PEN’s case.

Related Content

Current United States Authoritarian Threat Index score: 2.5/5 Significant Threat

The Score Breakdown

  • Executive Constraints 2.2/5 • Significant Threat
  • Treatment of Media 2.2/5 • Significant Threat