The Trump Administration’s Jemele Hill Attack Threatens Free Speech

Jemele Hill

When White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders argued that ESPN’s Jemele Hill should be fired for labeling Donald Trump a while supremacist, the Trump administration crossed a constitutional line. Though most people misunderstand or abuse the free speech section of the First Amendment, that hallmark constitutional right does offer one pertinent protection for all individuals: the right to speak freely without interference from the government.

Which, for those paying attention, includes suggestions from public officials in the highest office of the government recommending being fired for speaking out against the sitting president.

In her original remarks, Hill said, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.” She added, “Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period.”

Hill went on to add a few other tweets:

Her reference to the Central Park 5 incident is crucial as it refers to Trump’s continued insistence that five men (four black, one Latino) originally convicted of raping a white banker should receive the death penalty even after DNA evidence exonerated then of any wrong doing.

At the White House daily press briefing yesterday, Sanders said in part, “I think that’s one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make and certainly something that’s a fireable offense by ESPN.”

This is aside from the fact that Hill made the comments on her own personal Twitter account (not on the air) and that much more egregious comments have been made – on both sides of the aisle – by commenters who aren’t empowered African American women.

Even Donald Trump (as a private citizen) made such remarks in October 2012 when he tweeted, “Obama’s ’07 speech which @DailyCaller just released not only shows that Obama is a racist but also how the press always covers for him.” Trump was not chastised by government officials nor penalized by the network who carried his reality television show for those remarks.

But now that he is president, Trump (and his administration) appear to see room to call for the heads (and jobs) of those who would dare offer constitutionally protected criticism.

As Washington Post political reporter Aaron Blake succinctly put it,

If there’s one difference between Trump and Hill, it’s that Hill said exactly what she meant. Trump, as he is wont to do, decided to hide behind innuendo in the name of provoking a reaction from the media and giving himself plausible deniability.

But at its core, Trump was questioning whether Obama was a loyal American and/or had terrorist sympathies. There’s a convincing case to be made that he was accusing Obama of some form of treason — which, unlike being a racist, is an actual federal crime, and one that carries a very specific punishment.

So apparently calling Trump a racist is bad, but calling Obama a racist and suggesting he is a secret Muslim who is lying about his birthplace and might sympathize with terrorists is okay?

[Emphasis Mine]

What’s At Stake

Let’s not mistake the situation – a private employer has every right to fire someone for speech or expression they feel does not align with their corporate values or financial bottom line. While some states have more stringent speech protections, on the whole most private industry employers offer at-will employment and are not beholden to the First Amendment’s free speech clause.

Those acting on behalf of the government, however, are beholden to the First Amendment’s prohibition on censoring individuals’ speech.

While the Trump administration will inevitably argue (as they always do) that they are ‘fighting fire with fire,’ the truth is it is neither their role as the White House nor their right as defenders of the Constitution to do so. When Trump was sworn into office, he took an oath to uphold the Constitution – not ignore or blatantly violate it when convenient.

By allowing Sanders (or any other Trump administration official) to use the power of the presidency to intimidate private citizens for engaging in free speech – especially speech critical of governing officials – yet another democratic norm has begun to fall to the wayside in what’s becoming standard practice in the nation’s backslide into autocracy.

The Independent added a pertinent observation in their analysis of Sanders’ remarks noting:

This is not an accident; black women are the difficult daughters of America. Our truths are dismissed as “too much.” Our existence holds a mirror to the meaning of society’s disdain for us. Our struggles are a call to action. Our realities are too tangled to tackle. Hill’s truth doesn’t implicate Trump alone, it implicates everyone doing nothing about the glaring hypocrisy in his reign as the head of a country whose brand is freedom and equality.

Because of this, Jemele Hill is not met with the enthusiastic applause that boomed through Boardwalk Hall when Miss Texas lambasted Trump’s under reaction to the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville. Miss Texas is young, white, traditionally beautiful, and a little rebellious. Her calls to justice couldn’t be more on-brand.

But Hill is the manifestation of an ideal that America falls short of, so she’s met instead with condemnation on the national stage. The press secretary wants her to be punished for speaking the truth so many non-white Americans know to be true. In fact, Hill will keep her job, but ESPN’s public statement that they “accept her apologies” reinforce the idea that black women should not speak out of turn, and certainly not dare criticise the most powerful man in the country.

But the free speech constitutional issues aren’t even the most hypocritical or ridiculous part of this entire situation.


For nearly the last decade conservatives have used the mantra of free speech for everything from battle cries about corporate executives stepping down for supporting anti-LGBTQ causes to misogynistic employees being fired for using company resources to publish sexist manifestos.

The same people calling for Trump to remove taxpayer funding from any university that cancelled an Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos speech over free speech concerns are the same people suddenly on board with the government encroaching on free speech. They key difference and tell that their argument has never actually been about free speech?

When confronted with defending speech these so-called ‘absolutist free speech’ conservatives disagree with, the room suddenly goes silent.

The crux of free speech – the underling tenet that makes constitutionally protected speech viable – is the ideal that speech should be protected even if it’s disagreeable – especially when it’s disagreeable.

But the unending silence from those right-wing free speech defenders isn’t the worst of it; many on the right have banded together to support the Trump administration’s suggestion in attempting to censor a private citizen for engaging in criticism of a government official. They’re jubilant at the prospect of state-sanctioned punishment for using speech as a tool to hold officials accountable.

Take the #FireJemeleHill Twitter hashtag, for instance. Here is a sampling of the conservatives who would have blown a gasket if anyone from the Obama administration had suggested Trump lose his reality television show over birther and racist statements:

That’s just a sampling of the dog whistle-laden (and outright racist) responses to the Trump administration’s attack on Hill.

Make no mistake: Sanders knew exactly what she was doing when she stood at the podium and threatened a private citizen’s free speech rights. This is par for the course for the Trump administration in its effort to demolish democratic norms – especially those enshrined in the First Amendment  including demonizing the very concept of independent free press.

Anyone who actually values the protections set out in the First Amendment should be horrified.

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.


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