Claiming President Donald Trump has misused his powers by threatening and attempting to retaliate against news media outlets with whom he disagrees, an organization representing writers and literary professionals filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.
The First Amendment lawsuit filed by PEN American Center gives a flurry of examples of the president’s alleged retaliation for perceived negative coverage. It was filed in the U.S. District Court from the Southern District of New York, and sued Trump in his capacity as president.
“Journalists who report on the president or his administration reasonably believe they face a credible threat of government retaliation for carrying out the duties of their profession,” the lawsuit states.
Here’s the Full Complaint:
Among the examples cited: the Department of Justice’s antitrust enforcement action against the merger of CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, with AT&T. Trump has constantly attacked CNN at his rallies and in his tweets. Another talking point: Trump’s executive order for the U.S. Postal Service to examine raising rates on Amazon, which is founded and run by Jeff Bezos, also the owner of The Washington Post. That was a retaliatory action, the lawsuit claims, which led to last week’s announcement by the U.S. Postal Service that it was proposing a 12 percent increase for the Parcel Select service used by Amazon. Trump has also often blasted The Post for what he perceives as negative coverage.
PEN American Center referred all comment to The Protect Democracy Project, one of two entities that helped write the lawsuit and assist PEN in its legal avenues. And the Yale Media Freedom Information & Access Clinic, which also assisted, referred all calls to PEN American.
Both the Yale clinic and Protect Democracy Project are offering their services pro bono, according to Aditi Juneja, an attorney and communications organizer with Protect Democracy Project. It was unclear Tuesday what they would bill, if their client won attorney fees, as sought in the complaint. Both groups are nonprofits and do not charge clients. If they won, there is a fee formula within the federal Equal Access to Justice Act that would determine their fees.
No one from the White House Press Office responded to a request for comment by press time.
“It was important for an organization to stand up and make it clear that it is not OK under the First Amendment and it is not OK under the U.S. Constitution,” Juneja told the Connecticut Law Tribune Tuesday. “This lawsuit is not just about writers and journalists, but about everyone’s right to free speech, which is a fundamental right in a democracy.”
No media outlets are named as plaintiffs, and Juneja said it’s not clear if any will join in at a later date. PEN American Center has standing to bring the suit because its members include literary professionals and writers who work in the media.
“There is associational standing,” Juneja said. “Some PEN members are members of the media and can sue in their own right.”
The suit does not seek punitive damages, and the only monetary damages sought are attorney fees. It seeks an injunctive order, asking the court to bar the president from carrying out any retaliation actions against the media, or directing any government agency or employee to do the same. The plaintiff also seeks declaratory relief: a declaration from the judge that Trump “has and continues to violate the First Amendment,” Juneja said.
The lawsuit comes as the press is under siege in many parts of the world, with the latest example being the killing of a Saudi journalist in Turkey. Many believe that journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was a critic of the regime in Saudi Arabia, was targeted for murder by that country’s leaders.
“President Trump’s anti-press actions are taking place at a time when autocrats around the world, including in Hungary, Poland, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have been ramping up their attacks on a free press,” Kristy Parker, counsel to Protect Democracy Project, said in a press release.