10 Things YOU Can Do To Protect Free Expression Under Trump

01/20/2017 06:59 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2017

With Donald J. Trump now officially Commander-in-Chief, writers, journalists, and artists around the country face new challenges to free speech, from the demonization of the media to restrictions on protest to the defunding of federal arts initiatives—the earliest warning signs of an encroaching autocracy.

But you can make a difference. As a part of PEN America’s toolkit to defend free expression, here are 10 things you can do to defend the First Amendment anywhere:

1. Ask your Representatives to protect your First Amendment rights and protections in all government policies and appointees. Former Congressional staff members have put together Indivisible: A practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda, a comprehensive handbook for making members of Congress listen. Other sets of tips have been put together by former Congressman Steve Israel and a former congressional staffer.

2. Support hard-hitting, investigative, and long-form journalism (and read it, too!). Trump surrogates such as Sean Hannity and Mike Huckabee have argued that “journalism is dead” in the United States. While this is certainly not true, the demonization of the media in 2016 and the rise of a “post-truth politics” mean that probing journalists and day-to-day reporting are under increasing threat. Subscribe or donate to the news outlets that you believe are doing important reporting. Include your local newspaper—support its vital coverage of your community.

3. Educate yourself about your First Amendment rights and protections. It is difficult to defend one’s rights without knowing what they are. There is no better way to understanding the First Amendment than to read it yourself. Education doesn’t stop there. Find an online course on free expression, such as Columbia University’s Freedom of Expression in the Age of Globalization, or UCLA/Berkeley’s Freedom of Speech and the Press.

4. Launch a petition. The Constitution guarantees your right to petition your government. Exercise it. Petition sites such as Change.org, We the People, AVAAZ, and Care2 allow you to launch a petition for free. You can also add your name to the pledge to protect the First Amendment led by PEN America with other progressive organizations and signed by many thousands of supporters, including all the U.S. Poet Laureates.  

5. Mount or join a resistance event. Around the country on Saturday, hundreds of thousands of Americans will join the Women’s March on Washington. There are also events in Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and more. Find a march near you. Need inspiration? Check out last week’s Writers Resist rally in New York featuring Rosanne Cash, Rita Dove, Michael Cunningham, and more.

6. Protect yourself against government surveillance or hacking.  Online privacy is an evolving challenge, and the debate about government monitoring vs. privacy rights remains unsettled – and vulnerable to calls for sacrificing a degree of privacy for greater national security. Know how to protect your data and your privacy rights:

  • Private internet browsing: Tor Browser is an internet router for private browsing, keeping your location and the sites you visit private from anyone attempting to view your search history or collect your data. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has developed a Surveillance Self-Defense Kit, with further tips on how to guard your privacy.

7. Exercise your right to free speech by using the power of words to counter disinformation, hate speech, and moves against the First Amendment. Letters to the editors and opinion pieces have long been a tool for citizen activists. Newspapers and online media outlets serving your community will have information on how to submit. There are many other creative ways to commit to sounding the alarm against hate speech and disinformation, from skits to leafleting to skywriting. Google “creative ways to protest’’ to get ideas. You can also learn more about how to speak out against bigotry and counter hate speech online, and particularly on Twitter.

8. Learn how to identify “fake news” and disinformation, and help others to do so, too. Read up on best practices in news literacy, including ways to spot false stories and how help to stop spreading this disinformation further. Use and support fact checking initiatives.

9. Connect with others. There is strengthen in numbers, and much to be done. Find a community group that works on a cause you care about and volunteer. Learn how to be an active witness if you see a hate crime, and come to the aid of victims of bigotry in public places.

10. Seek out and share works that consider the growth of authoritarian regimes and how to defend free expression and press freedoms. Whether you set out on a personal exploration or form a book club to widen the discussion, there are many titles to choose among. PEN America staff point to books such as Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship (on our 2017 Literary Awards longlist) or the more classic There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech (winner of the 1994 PEN Literary Award for the Art of the Essay).

CONVERSATIONS