A brief history of Donald Trump’s mixed messages on freedom of speech


President Donald Trump caused a nationwide uproar this week when he repeatedly attacked the professional football players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality, saying that they were being disrespectful to the country, the military and the American flag.

The controversy showed yet again that Trump’s definition of what constitutes free speech shifts depending on who is trying to speak, worship or demonstrate – even though Trump has said that the U.S. Constitution is “set in stone,” and that judges should interpret it “as written and not make up new meaning for what they read.”


The First Amendment has allowed Trump to freely and widely share his own views, even those that are factually inaccurate, inflammatory or crude. But when others use that same freedom to question Trump or what he believes to be true, he is often quick to question their right to do so.

Here’s a look at what the president has said about the freedoms outlined in the First Amendment:

– “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

At a Rose Garden ceremony in May, Trump signed an executive order that proclaimed the government’s commitment to religious freedom but did little to enact changes.

“Our Founding Fathers believed that religious liberty was so fundamental that they enshrined it in the very first amendment of our great and beloved Constitution,” Trump said.

Some Christians felt under attack during the Obama administration, especially as same-sex marriage was legalized and health-insurance providers were required to cover birth control. Trump tapped into this frustration, promising that once he was president, it would once again be safe to say “Merry Christmas.”

Trump has promised to keep “people of faith safe from threats like radical Islam,” to allow tax-exempt churches to make political endorsements and to expand voucher programs that shift public funding to religious schools. He has also said it is “absolutely outrageous” that public school football teams are not allowed to pray together.

“America will flourish, as long as our liberty – and, in particular, our religious liberty – is allowed to flourish,” Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast in February.

Although Trump sometimes mentions Jews and Muslims when discussing religious freedom, his primary focus is on Christians.

He has said that “Islam hates us” and that he would “strongly consider” closing mosques in the United States to deter terrorism. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to ban nearly all foreign Muslims from entering the country.

“Just remember this: Our Constitution is great, but it doesn’t necessarily give us the right to commit suicide, okay?” Trump said, defending his proposed ban in July 2016. “Everybody wants to be protected. And that’s great. And that’s the wonderful part of our Constitution. I view it differently. Why are we committing suicide?”

Once in office, Trump enacted a series of travel restrictions that he insisted were not based on religion. The constitutionality of those bans is now being challenged in the courts.

– “… or abridging the freedom of speech …”

A few weeks after Trump won the 2016 presidential election, he tweeted: “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

That same month, a member of the cast of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” confronted soon-to-be Vice President Pence from the stage, telling Pence that many Americans were “alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.” Trump tweeted that this sort of confrontation “should not happen” and that “the Theater must always be a safe and special place.”

This was not the first time that Trump recoiled at dissent.

When the father of a slain Muslim American soldier criticized Trump in a speech during the Democratic National Convention, Trump said the father “has no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim I have never read the Constitution.”

Trump’s Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, has blocked many Twitter users who have criticized, mocked or disagreed with him, prompting the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University to file a lawsuit, alleging an unconstitutional effort to suppress dissent.

The president has also vowed to go after “low-life leakers” within the government – not just those who share sensitive or classified information with reporters but also those who pass along embarrassing information about him or his administration.

Trump has repeatedly called for shutting down parts of the Internet used by terrorists for recruitment, and he said has that First Amendment protection should not extend to those who publish directions for building a bomb.

“They tell you how to make bombs. We should arrest the people that do that, because they’re participating in crime,” Trump said in September 2016. “We should arrest them. Instead, they say: ‘Oh, no, you can’t do anything. That’s freedom of expression.’ ”

– “… or of the press …”

Trump has accused journalists of being the “enemy of the American People” and has suggested that the country “open up” federal libel laws to make it easier to sue news outlets and “win lots of money.”

Trump has also struck up warm friendships with foreign leaders who are accused of violently crushing free speech in their countries and imprisoning journalists, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (“We agree on so many things,” Trump said as he met with the autocrat in the Oval Office in April) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (“A friend of mine,” Trump recently said).

Earlier this month, Trump held a joint news conference with the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, who complained about media coverage in his country. Trump perked up and said, “I’m very, very honored and happy to know that you have problems with the media also.”

In Kuwait, the government licenses media outlets, and it is a criminal offense to publicly criticize Islam or the emir. Several journalists and activists have been imprisoned in recent years.

As Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin on the campaign trail, he brushed off accusations that Putin had ordered the deaths of journalists and those who did not agree with him. Trump clarified his position in December 2015 when he declared at a rally that, as president, he would “never kill” journalists.

But then he paused and jokingly reconsidered.

“Uh, let’s see,” he said, appearing to ponder the question. “No. I would never do that.”

– “… or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Ahead of Trump’s campaign rallies where protesters were expected, organizers would often play an announcement:

“We all know that as president of the United States, Mr. Trump will continue his lifelong defense of the right of free speech in America. . . . However, some people are taking advantage of Mr. Trump’s hospitality by choosing to disrupt his rallies by using them as an opportunity to promote their own political messages. While they certainly have the right to free speech, this is a private event paid for by Mr. Trump. We have provided a safe protest area outside the venue for all protesters.”

Rallygoers were also urged not to harm protesters – even though Trump had repeatedly encouraged such violence and even offered to pay the legal expenses of supporters who got into fights.

“They used to treat them very, very rough, and when they protested once, they would not do it again so easily,” Trump said at a rally in North Carolina in March 2016, during which a supporter punched a protester.

Trump has labeled many protesters as “thugs,” paid actors, “disrupters,” “anarchists” and “anti-police agitators.” But he used different terminology in coming to the defense of protesters who gathered in Charlottesville last month with torches and Confederate flags to oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park.

“They were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. . . . It looked like they had some rough, bad people – neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them,” the president said at a news conference in August. “But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest. . . . They had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit.”

A month later, at a rally last week in Alabama, Trump told the crowd that the owners of professional football teams should fire players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police treatment of blacks and racial inequality.

“I know we have freedoms,” Trump said at the rally, “and we have freedom of choice and many, many different freedoms. But you know what? It’s totally disrespectful.”

Two days later, a reporter asked the president about the First Amendment rights of the players.

“They have rights. We all have rights – but when you’re on that field, and, you know, there’s a situation going on,” Trump said. “This is a great, great country, and we have a great flag, and they should respect our flag.”



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