Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones removed from social media platforms after calls for misinformation crackdown – August 2018

Austin, TX

In August 2018, Alex Jones — a prominent far-right figure from Texas involved in several defamation cases for perpetuating conspiracy theories — was removed from multiple social media platforms, including Facebook, Youtube, and Spotify. According to the The New York Times, the move came after pressure increased on technology companies to address their role in spreading false information and political division. Twitter, however, decided to keep Jones’s content posted; days later, Twitter acceded to growing criticism and temporarily suspended Jones for violating its content policies. He responded by deleting tweets that appeared to violate those standards, which led to accusations that he was destroying evidence related to the Sandy Hook defamation case.

Key Players

Alex Jones is a broadcaster based in Austin, TX, who often perpetuates conspiracy theories and misinformation on various platforms, including his radio program, The Alex Jones Show, and his website,

InfoWars receives about 10 million monthly unique views, according to Quantcast, an American firm that tracks website audiences. His radio show airs daily on more than 60 stations nationwide.

Jones gained notoriety for promoting conspiracy theories about the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which he alleged was a “giant hoax” where “no one died”. He would later stir controversy by claiming that a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant was headquarters for a child sex-trafficking ring run by prominent Democrats, and that a survivor of the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was a crisis actor.

He has faced legal action for his actions. In April 2018, Jones was sued for defamation by a man who claimed Jones and InfoWars had falsely identified him as the gunman in the Parkland shooting, according to the New York Times. That same month, three parents of children slain in the Sandy Hook shooting filed defamation suits against Jones for insisting the shooting was a hoax, which led to some parents being harassed. For example, an individual was sentenced to five months in prison after making death threats against Leonard Pozner, one of the Sandy Hook parents who filed a suit against Jones, according to the New York Times.

The suits, which seek millions of dollars in damages, specifically focus on certain comments Jones has made. For example, in an April 2017 segment of his radio show, Jones claimed that a CNN interview with a Sandy Hook parent by journalist Anderson Cooper was falsified. In another segment, Jones questioned the veracity of a Sandy Hook parent who recalled holding his dead son’s body after the shooting. The lawsuits characterize such comments as “a continuation and elaboration of a yearslong campaign to falsely attack the honesty of the Sandy Hook parents, casting them as participants in a ghastly conspiracy and cover-up,” according to the Times.

Further Details

On July 25, 2018, two Sandy Hook parents published an open letter in The Guardian. Their message: that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg should take more substantive steps against the propagation of conspiracy theories surrounding mass shootings, as well as the harassment of and threats to victims’ families that often follow.

“Our families are in danger as a direct result of the hundreds of thousands of people who see and believe the lies and hate speech, which you have decided should be protected,” the parents wrote. “What makes the entire situation all the more horrific is that we have had to wage an almost inconceivable battle with Facebook to provide us with the most basic of protections to remove the most offensive and incendiary content.”’

The next day, YouTube, the video-sharing platform on which, by that point, Jones had amassed more than 2.4 million subscribers, removed four videos from Jones’ InfoWars channel, saying their depictions of shoving “liberal” children into the ground and labeling of young people in drag as “Satanists” violated the company’s graphic content policy, according to USA Today. The company also prohibited him from broadcasting live on the platform for 90 days.

“We have longstanding policies against child endangerment and hate speech,” YouTube said in a statement. “We apply our policies consistently according to the content in the videos, regardless of the speaker or the channel.”

That night, Facebook suspended Jones’s account for 30 days after removing four videos from pages he runs, including his own profile and the InfoWars page.  The company said the videos violated its community standards against hate speech and bullying. Facebook also noted that Jones’s pages were nearing the limit on the number of violations they could commit, and ran the risk of being permanently removed, according to NBC News. Facebook’s ban prevented Jones from posting to his profile page, but still allowed others to access both it and the InfoWars Facebook page. According to NBC News, not even a full day had passed before Jones appeared in a livestream on the InfoWars page.


Numerous social media, video sharing platforms remove Jones

In the first week of August 2018, several top social media and other technology companies, including Apple, Google, Facebook, and Spotify, wiped Jones’s content from their platforms.

On August 5, Apple took down several of his podcasts, saying that “Apple does not tolerate hate speech, ” according to the New York Times. The next day, Facebook removed four pages controlled by Jones, including one with nearly 1.7 million followers, the Times said. Facebook said Jones’s pages violated its policies by “glorifying violence” and perpetuating dehumanizing language against various minority groups.

That same week, YouTube, which is owned by Google, terminated Jones’s popular video channel, citing the company’s  ban on hate speech. Spotify, a music streaming service, soon followed suit. A week later, the video sharing website Vimeo removed content published by Jones and InfoWars, according to Newsweek, saying the clips violated their ban on “discriminatory and hateful content.” Smaller social media companies, including Stitcher, LinkedIn, and Pinterest, also removed InfoWars content.

While many large tech companies, such as Google and Facebook, were at first slow to remove Jones from their platforms–instead choosing short-term bans or removal of specific content–his continued policy violations appeared to erode their patience over time.

Jones reacts to social media removals

In the immediate aftermath of these bans, Jones called for his supporters to resist “sociopaths” whom he blamed for his content’s removal; in fact, he suggested the bans were part of a plot by Democrats, “globalists,” and “corporatists” to silence his ideas, reported the New York Times. By August 7, Jones’s InfoWars app had seen a dramatic spike in its Apple App Store rankings.

Jones characterized his removal from so many media channels as a “war on free speech,” according to the Times, saying he was being “de-platformed” for his beliefs.

Twitter faces calls to remove Jones from platform, bans Jones temporarily

Calls spread online for Twitter — one of the most notable platforms that had not removed Jones — to do so as well.  On August 14, it temporarily suspended his account for a week, citing a video he tweeted, urging his supporters to ready their “battle rifles” against the media.  Before long, however, his account was back online.

In the wake of these suspensions, USA Today reported, Jones and InfoWars directed supporters to Tumblr, another social media platform. “They can take our Facebook, Apple, Spotify, Tunein, Youtube, Stitcher, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Flickr, Vimeo, Sprout, Mailchimp & Disqus but they’ll never take our………..Tumblr!” InfoWars tweeted, shortly before being suspended by Twitter.

On August 17, Jones was accused of destroying evidence pertinent to the Sandy Hook defamation case when he deleted social media posts, including tweets, related to his view of the massacre of children and teachers. In an InfoWars broadcast, Jones said he instructed staffers to delete such posts in response to reports that several seemed to violate Twitter’s community standards, according to NBC News.

Prominent figures decry Jones’ social media bans

On August 18, President Donald J. Trump weighed into the debate on Twitter, though he refrained from mentioning Jones by name. “Censorship is a very dangerous thing & absolutely impossible to policy,” Trump wrote. “Too many voices are being destroyed, some good & some bad, and that cannot be allowed to happen.”

Liberal comedian Bill Maher also spoke out in favor of Jones’ right to Free Speech, according to The Hill.

“I don’t like Alex Jones, but Alex Jones gets to speak. Everybody gets to speak,” Maher said on an August 17 episode of his HBO show. “If you’re a liberal, you’re supposed to be for free speech…That’s free speech for the speech you hate. That’s what free speech means. We’re losing the thread of the concepts that are important to this country.”

External References

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones backs off ‘Pizzagate’ claims, Washington Post

Alex Jones settles Chobani lawsuit and retracts comments about refugees in Twin Falls, Idaho, Los Angeles Times

Sandy Hook Parents Sue Alex Jones for Defamation, New York Times

An open letter to Mark Zuckerberg: our child died at Sandy Hook – why let Facebook lies hurt us even more?, The Guardian

Facebook suspends profile of Infowars founder, says ban is ‘close’, NBC News

Alex Jones and Infowars Content Is Removed From Apple, Facebook and YouTube, New York Times

Vimeo Removes Alex Jones’s InfoWars Content: ‘Discriminatory and Hateful,’ Newsweek

Alex Jones Urges Infowars Fans to Fight Back, and Send Money, New York Times

Bill Maher criticizes social media bans: ‘Alex Jones gets to speak’, The Hill

Twitter Suspends Alex Jones and Infowars for Seven Days, New York Times

Before Twitter suspended Alex Jones, Infowars was already directing users to Tumblr, USA Today

Alex Jones destroyed evidence in Sandy Hook case, claim says, NBC News

On Twitter, Trump accuses ‘social media’ of limiting free speech of conservatives, Washington Post

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Uploaded September 6, 2018

Trump Disinvites Philadelphia Eagles for Post-Super Bowl White House Visit – June 2018

Washington, DC

Following their 2018 Super Bowl win, the Philadelphia Eagles were invited to the White House for a celebration and the opportunity to meet the president, as is customary for winners of the football championship. President Trump abruptly called off the visit, however, after hearing that many of the players would not attend and the team planned to send only a small delegation to the event.

Key Players

President Donald Trump invited the Philadelphia Eagles to visit the White House after they won the 2018 Super Bowl, but he withdrew the invitation on short notice after learning that many member of the team had declined his invitation. He instead held a celebration featuring the United States Marine Band for Eagles fans who had obtained tickets to the celebration.

The Philadelphia Eagles won the 2018 Super Bowl, and were subsequently invited to celebrate their victory at the White House. When many of the team’s players decided not to attend, out of protest against the president’s policies and the team offered to send only a small delegation, Trump angrily disinvited the whole team.

Further Details

On February 4, 2018, the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots in the 52nd Super Bowl, taking home their first Lombardi Trophy after almost four hours of intense play.  Since the Pittsburgh Steelers did so in 1980, it has been customary for winners of the United States’ most-watched sports event to celebrate their success by visiting the president at the White House.

Almost three months after the Eagles’ victory, neither they nor the White House had any word on whether the team would visit. In a confidential meeting with National Football League owners and players, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie was recorded criticizing Trump, saying his presidency had been “disastrous.” The recording leaked to The New York Times in late April, and several star players had already told news sources they would not attend such a celebration if it did occur, due to political differences with President Trump. However, on May 17, the White House announced it would indeed host the team on June 5.

In addressing why he and many of his teammates planned to skip the event, Torrey Smith explained to The Times that, since he would never go to a party hosted by someone who was racist, sexist, and had insulted his friends —  “why is it any different when this person has the title of President of the United States?” Chris Long, known for his outspoken political views, and teammate LeGarrette Blount both indicated that they would also forgo the visit, just as they had done a year earlier as members of the 2017 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. At least two dozen Patriots players skipped that meeting, according to The Times, including quarterback Tom Brady, a Trump supporter, who cited “family matters” as his reason.

By June 4, the day before the scheduled 2018 celebration, only two Eagles players and a handful of coaches had committed to attending. As a result, President Trump released a statement rescinding the invitation. “The Philadelphia Eagles are unable to come to the White House with their full team to be celebrated tomorrow. They disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country,” the statement read. Following the event’s cancellation, prominent athletes and team members took to social media to defend the Eagles. Torrey Smith wrote on Twitter: “So many lies. Here are the facts 1. Not many people were going to go 2. No one refused to simply because Trump ‘insists’ folks stand for the anthem 3. The President continues to spread the false narrative that players are anti military.” Senator Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter, “I’m skipping this political stunt at the White House and just invited the Eagles to Congress.” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney voiced a similar sentiment: “These are players who stand up for the causes they believe in and who contribute in meaningful ways to their community. They represent the diversity of our nation—a nation in which we are free to express our opinions. Disinviting them from the White House only proves that our President is not a true patriot, but a fragile egomaniac obsessed with crowd size and afraid of the embarrassment of throwing a party . . . no one wants to attend.”

Public reactions were polarized. Many viewed such White House visits as a privilege and an opportunity for NFL players to show their patriotism, while others argued that the players had a right to use their platform to express their political views. Often brought up in these discussions was the fact that none of the Eagles players had actually knelt during the national anthem that season (some players did, however, raise their fists or lock arms), which made many question the soundness of President Trump’s reasoning.


President Trump invites Eagles fans to the White House for an alternate celebration

In his statement, President Trump offered Eagles fans who had planned to accompany their team to the White House “a different type of ceremony—one that will honor our great country, pay tribute to the heroes who fight to protect it, and loudly and proudly play the National Anthem.”

However, many who witnessed the ceremony, including SB Nation, a Vox media-owned sports blog, raised doubts as to whether any Eagles fans were actually present. And according to Think Progress, a news website run by  the DC think tank Center for American Progress, “multiple interns from at least one federal agency were invited to the event shortly beforehand and attended. . . . The interns, who were not from Pennsylvania and did not talk about the Eagles or the president, received souvenir American flags.”  This was apparently a departure from previous practice.

External References

The Eagles Will Visit the White House After All, The New York Times

President Trump’s statement cancelling the Eagles’ visit, White house Press release

Trump Abruptly Calls off Philadelphia Eagles’ Visit to the White House, The New York Times

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s Statement on Eagles’ Cancelled White House Visit

Senator Bob Casey’s Twitter post in response to the cancellation.

Inside the Confidential N.F.L. Meeting to Discuss National Anthem Protests, The New York Times

Tom Brady Skips Patriots’ White House Visit Along With Numerous Teammates, The New York Times

How Did Athletes Visiting the President at the White House Become a Tradition? Rolling Stone

White House Used Interns to Fill Out Crowd Trump’s Replacement Superbowl Event, Think Progress

President Donald Trump replaced the Eagles’ Super Bowl celebration with a rally seemingly no fans attended


Prepared by Gustav Honl-Stuenkel  ‘20

Uploaded August 31, 2018


Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

President Trump calls for tougher libel laws – January 2018

Washington, D.C.

Following the January 2018 release of Michael Wolff’s tell-all book Fire and Fury, President Trump called for more stringent libel laws in the United States, claiming that current restrictions concerning defamatory statements and actions lack effectiveness. His apparent aim was make it easier for people to seek “meaningful recourse” in court in the event of slander or libel, according to Politico.

Key Players

Michael Wolff is an award-winning journalist who authored Fire and Fury, published in 2018. Wolff interviewed current and former aides and advisors to Donald Trump, all of whom insisted on anonymity. The book was controversial because it put into question the competency and efficiency of the president and his White House staff.

Donald J. Trump is the 45th President of the United States. Over the course of his campaign and into his presidency, Trump has harshly focused on the media and their representation of him, leading to his heightened interest in libel laws and what he regards as inaccuracy in reporting.  He has commented on the need for stricter libel laws on multiple occasions. At his first cabinet meeting of 2018, Trump said current laws were a “sham and disgrace,” and that people “can’t say things that are false, knowingly false, and be able to smile as money pours into [their] bank account[s].”

Further Details

Trump discussed the issue on the campaign trail in February 2016, when he said he would look into “opening up” current libel laws. At a campaign rally in Fort Worth, Texas, he said that if he won the election, he would “open up…libel laws so when they write purposefully negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” He later backtracked on this statement, saying: “Somebody said to me on that, they said, ‘You know, it’s a great idea softening up those laws, but you may get sued a lot more.’”

The president also called for changing libel laws on Twitter in March 2017. Trump tweeted about The New York Times, writing, “The failing @nytimes has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change libel laws?” Politico reported that this tweet could mean the president might “consider using the legal system to retaliate against news coverage he dislikes.”

Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, thanks to various insider sources, exposed many of the chaotic goings-on at the Trump White House. This portrayal frustrated the president, leading to him calling for a stiffening of libel laws that would make it easier for people who thought they had been defamed to sue publications or individuals.


Inability to take action

Trump has made no progress on this front, largely because Congress is generally uniform in agreement on the issue and will not take it up. Further, many libel laws are enacted at the state level, where Trump has little influence or reach, as Politico points out. Thus, while Trump may continue to assert that tougher libel laws are necessary, it is unlikely that the current laws on the books, as interpreted by the courts, will change any time soon, according to various publications, including The Washington Post and The New York Times.

External References

Trump revives promise to toughen libel laws, New York Post

Trump says administration will take ‘very strong look’ at stricter libel laws, The Washington Post

Trump Renews Pledge to ‘Take a Strong Look’ at Libel Laws, The New York Times

Donald Trump: We’re going to ‘open up’ libel laws, POLITICO

In Twitter attack on New York Times, Trump floats changing libel laws, POLITICO

Prepared by Emma Vahey ‘20

Uploaded August 31, 2018

Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Newseum draws backlash for selling Trump apparel – August, 2018

Washington, D.C.

The Newseum is a private, non-governmental Washington, D.C., museum whose mission, according to its website, is “to increase public understanding of the importance of a free press and the First Amendment.” It occupies a prominent location on Pennsylvania Avenue, near the US Capitol. In addition to exhibits that highlight the press’s historical importance and how it connects with everyday people, the Newseum also has in-house and online gift shops where visitors can purchase press-related and political memorabilia. After the Newseum began selling hats and T-shirts bearing slogans made popular by President Donald Trump, members of the press heavily criticized the decision.

Key Players

Daniel Funke is a reporter for The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to best practices and ethics in journalism, located in St. Petersburg, Florida. Funke covers fact-checking, online misinformation, and “fake news” for the institute’s daily newsletter, Poynter. He broke the story of the Newseum’s sale of Trump-related paraphernalia.

Sonya Gavankar is director of public relations at the Newseum. At first, she defended the museum’s decision to sell the political apparel.

Further Details

On August 3, 2018, Funke published a story in Poynter about the Newseum’s online store. The article focused on hats and T-shirts bearing the slogans “Make America Great Again” and “You are very fake news,” the latter a reference to a broadside President Trump has used repeatedly against the media since beginning his 20016 presidential campaign. “You don’t have to look very far to see how Trump’s favorite catchphrases are being used to delegitimize the press,” Funke wrote.

The Newseum at first defended the decision to sell the products, with Gavankar telling Poynter that one of the Newseum’s “greatest strengths” is that it not only champions a free press but also Free Speech.

A swift backlash followed from journalists on social media. Members of the press criticized the Newseum’s decision, some questioning whether it was appropriate to promote an epithet the president commonly uses to delegitimize the media and sow skepticism about their work.

Michael Barbaro, New York Times journalist and host of “The Daily” podcast, called the decision “a very bad idea” in a Twitter post on August 3. “You exist to honor, examine and protect the news media, not embrace the bywords by which others seek to undermine it,” he wrote. One of the Newseum’s most prominent attractions is a memorial wall with the names of all the journalists who have been killed, or have disappeared, while doing their job.

Washingtonian, a local D.C. magazine, also condemned the decision, writing that “[The use of the term is] a cynical political strategy that reflects years of work performed by very well paid people whose goal was to paint the news media as a political faction—as well as a rallying cry for people who view newsgathering errors not as the inevitable result of human endeavor but as confirmation of malice.”

But Gavankar said the Newseum viewed the slogan differently. In an August 3 statement to CNN, Gavankar said “Fake news is a word that is in our popular culture now and this is intended to be a ‘satirical rebuke’ and appears in our store with T-shirts that include a variety of other ‘tongue-in-cheek’ sayings.” Moreover, she told Poynter that “The MAGA hat and the FBI hat are two of our best-selling items.” (The Newseum also sells a hat with the acronym for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.)

CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter suggested that turning a profit may have been the museum’s true motivating factor, writing in an August 3 tweet that “the Newseum says this is about championing ‘free speech.’ The more cynical read: The museum is deep in debt, strapped for cash, and tourists like these trinkets.” Stelter appeared to be referencing a February 7, 2018, report in The Washington Post on the museum’s financial woes, which include fundraising shortages and a $300 million debt burden for its main benefactor. Stelter’s colleague, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, has frequently had the phrase “fake news” shouted at him as an insult while covering Trump rallies.


Newseum pulls political apparel from online shop

The day after the story broke, the Newseum announced it would no longer be selling the “You are very fake news” T-shirts, saying it had “made a mistake” and would, therefore, apologize. “A free press is an essential part of our democracy and journalists are not the enemy of the people,” Gavankar said in a statement to TIME magazine that was also posted to the Newseum’s website, drawing on another phrase Trump has used to excoriate the news media. The Newseum said it would continue selling other Trump-related apparel.

Following the lightning-fast resolution of the uproar, however, the suggestion emerged on social media that the financially strapped Newseum had been censored by the very people who defend Free Speech most aggressively. As the Washingtonian put it, some might see the sale of anti-media memorabilia as “admirable.”

If we present all sides of an issue, the thinking goes, we’re actually strengthening democracy,” as the magazine explained that point of view. “That sort of balance—the kind of thing that characterizes a metropolitan daily’s op-ed pages—certainly defines most of the items available in the museum’s gift shop, whose offerings are long on political souvenirs.

External References

“The Newseum is selling MAGA hats and ‘fake news’ T-shirts,” Poynter

“The Newseum is selling ‘Fake News’ T-shirts,” CNN

“Newseum pulls ‘fake news’ shirt after backlash,” POLITICO

“Newseum apologizes for selling ‘fake news’ T-shirts,” The Hill

“Washington’s Newseum Pulls ‘Fake News’ Shirts After Pushback From Journalists,” TIME

“People Are Furious at the Newseum for Selling “Fake News” T-Shirts. The Newseum’s Defense Is Making Things Even Worse,” Washingtonian

“Newseum pulls ‘fake news’ shirts after outcry from journalists,” The Washington Post

“‘A slow-motion disaster’: Journalism museum in talks about possible building sale,” The Washington Post

Newseum statement on store merchandise

About the Newseum

Prepared by Jesus Rodriguez ‘19

Uploaded August 23, 2018


Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Connecticut selectwoman kneels during Pledge of Allegiance to protest Trump – July 16, 2018

Haddam, Connecticut

In a show of protest against President Donald Trump, a Democratic selectwoman on the local governing board of Haddam, Connecticut, highlighted political divisions by kneeling in council chambers during a July 16, 2018, board meeting.

Key Players

Melissa Schlag was elected in 20127 as the lone Democrat on the three-person board of selectmen of Haddam, a town roughly 30 miles south of Hartford whose nearly 7,000 residents voted for Donald Trump by a narrow margin in the 2016 presidential election. She began kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance on July 16, 2018, the day of Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.

Art Linares is a Republican state senator in Connecticut who bested Schlag when she ran as a Green Party candidate for the state senate in 2012. He was one of the first to call on Schlag to resign after her symbolic protest.

Tim Herbst is a Republican candidate in the 2018 Connecticut gubernatorial race. Prior to that, he served as first selectman for Trumbull, CT, from 2009 to 2017. He also joined calls for Schlag’s resignation.

Further Details

At the U.S.-Russia summit in Helsinki, Trump appeared to reject American intelligence community findings that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections; the president seemed to give greater credibility to Putin’s claims that Russia had not meddled in the U.S. democratic system, according to The Washington Post.

The widespread uproar that followed the now-infamous press conference following the summit prompted Schlag to take a knee during the Pledge of Allegiance, which is recited at the beginning of every public meeting of the Haddam board of selectmen. Schlag said she was “inspired” by protests in the National Football League, where since 2016 players have knelt during the national anthem before football games, to register a symbolic protest against American racism and police brutality.

In a letter posted to her Facebook page, Schlag explained the decision as stemming from her opposition to Trump’s performance at the summit. as well as the administration’s so-called zero-tolerance policy that resulted in the separation of more than 2,000 immigrant families in the summer of 2018. “As long as Donald J. Trump is the president of the United States,” she wrote in a letter posted to Facebook, “I will kneel. I will kneel for all the people, regardless of party affiliation, and continue to fight for their rights. This is not the America I grew up in, or the country we should be, but I will work every day to get us back to that place.”

At first, CNN reported, Schlag did not receive any backlash. But at the following week’s meeting, the chamber was packed with military veterans who shouted at her as she protested. The meeting had to be moved to a different room to accommodate the large crowd, reported The Washington Times.

On July 25, in a “Fox & Friends” interview, Herbst called on Schlag to resign immediately. “One of the things the flag stands for — it stands for our freedom, it stands for our democracy. It stands for the fundamental ideal that we can have differences of opinion, but we all stand in respect of our flag because many people, including my 93-year-old grandfather who’s a veteran, fought in defense of the very liberty that the flag resembles [sic],” he said.

Linares, the Connecticut state senator whom Schlag ran against in 2012, also called for her resignation, saying that while Schlag has an individual right to protest, she should not be exercising it during meetings, because she is an elected official “who represents the community.”

Schlag ignited further criticism after a video surfaced online from the July 23 meeting, in which she can be overheard calling her own town “racist and fascist.” Schlag has since apologized for that video and said that she meant only that some in her town fit that characterization, according to The Hartford Courant. She added that she was speaking to a supportive friend at the time and was under a great deal of stress.


Herbst and Linares hold “Stand for the Flag” rally

On July 30, nearly 150 people attended a rally organized by Herbst and Linares on Higganum Green, a park in Haddam three-quarters of a mile away from the firehouse where the board was meeting at the time. According to The Middletown Press, Herbst and Linares said they held the event to support the American flag and the values it represents.

Critics create Facebook page blasting Schlag

Schlag’s critics created a Facebook page titled “Time for Haddam CT Selectman Melissa Schlag to Resign.” Despite only 65 people having “liked” and followed the page, it has become a forum for residents to air grievances about her, with some attacking Schlag as “repulsive,” a “disgrace,” and “a crud.” Others have called on her to leave the country and go live in Mexico. The page’s administrators have also said that Schlag was only elected to her position because the town’s charter prohibits one political party from monopolizing all representation on the board of selectmen, and they argued that the town should repeal that provision.

Schlag continues to protest

Schlag is still protesting the administration’s policies during the Pledge of Allegiance at board meetings, and she has said she will continue to kneel until Trump leaves office. Some Haddam residents support her, saying she is well within her rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Her term on the board of selectmen ends in 2019.

External References

“In a town where 51% voted for Trump, one official takes a knee during the Pledge of Allegiance in protest,” CNN

“‘Do that on your own time’: Official’s decision to kneel during pledge divides her small town,” The Washington Post

“Connecticut official faces calls to resign after kneeling during pledge to protest Trump,” The Washington Times

“Haddam Selectman defends decision to kneel during Pledge of Allegiance,” WFSB

“Kneeling For The Pledge: Connecticut Reacts To A Fight Over The Flag,” The Hartford Courant

“Haddam Selectwoman Who Knelt During Pledge Offers Apology For Comments,” The Hartford Courant

Lawsuit against Tim Herbst, Filed By Estranged Brother-in-law, Cost Trumbull $25k,” The Hartford Courant

After Haddam Selectwoman Takes A Knee During the Pledge, Political Firestorm Rages On,” The Hartford Courant

“Hadam selectman faces harsh criticism, condemnation for taking knee during Pledge of Allegiance,” The Middletown Press.

Melissa Schlag, Ballotpedia

Town of Haddam, Connecticut meetings calendar

Melissa Schlag’s campaign website

“Time for Haddam CT Selectman Melissa Schlag to Resign” Facebook page

Prepared by Jesus Rodriguez ‘19

Uploaded August 20, 2018

Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Canadian professor threatens to sue online critic for libel – June 2018

Toronto, Canada // Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania

Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor who has stirred controversy online for his stances on political correctness and feminism, threatened to sue an American professor for her criticisms online, which were factually unverifiable and which Peterson called “defamatory.” As Peterson demanded, the American professor deleted the statements and issued an apology, calming the legal threats.

Key Players

Jordan Peterson is an academic figure noteworthy for, among other things, his stance on free speech. A psychology professor at the University of Toronto, Peterson has gained traction online for his critiques of “political correctness,” the idea of white privilege, and feminism.

“The masculine spirit is under assault,” he said in an interview with the New York Times.

These beliefs have often won him favor among conservative audiences, including alt-right circles. In September 2017, for example, white nationalist leader Richard Spencer retweeted Peterson’s notorious lecture on his belief that women have an unconscious desire to be dominated.

Peterson has also gained relative fame and fortune through his public brand. His January 2018 book, “12 Rules for Life,” had sold more than 1.1 million copies by May 2018, according to the Times. And, thanks to his popular Youtube channel, which boasts 1.3 subscribers as of August 2018, Peterson receives more than $80,000 monthly in donations.

Peterson is currently involved in a defamation case against Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, over comments made by three of its staff members. The staff in question reprimanded a teacher’s assistant (TA) for playing a video of Peterson discussing his controversial views on the use of gender pronouns for transgender individuals. They told the TA, during a subsequent meeting, that Peterson’s stance targeted transgender students and compared the video to showing “a speech by Hitler,” according to the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper. One professor present questioned Peterson’s intellectual credibility, saying he lacked “substantial academic evidence.”

But, unbeknownst to the supervisors, the TA had been recording their discussion  and would soon release the audio to the media, resulting in widespread university criticism and Peterson’s litigious response. The suit, which seeks $1.5 million in damages, according to the Globe and Mail, claims that the three university staff members who made the critical comments about Peterson were maliciously defaming him.

In August 2018, the university filed a statement in court, claiming that Peterson knew about and consented to the release of the tape; the statement also asserts that Peterson has experienced “significantly increased financial and professional success” since the release of the recording, according to The Sault Star, an Ontario daily.

Wendy Lynne Lee is a philosophy professor at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. Lee, who leans left, is also a staunch free speech advocate who once defended the use of flag-burning as a form of protest in a post on her blog, according to Mic.

Further Details

On May 31, Lee tweeted sharp criticism of Peterson to her roughly 300 followers.

“Jordan Peterson: incel misogynist. Committed white nationalist,” Lee wrote, referring to “his [descent] into rank bigotry.”

“Incels.” short for “involuntary celibates,” are members of a growing, self-identified online community.  Incel ideology revolves around a hatred of women, who incels believe owe them sex but ignore them because of women’s shallowness. The online movement gained national attention in April 2018, when Alex Minassian killed 10 and injured 15 in a van attack in Toronto, a seemingly motiveless crime until investigators discovered that he had self-identified as an incel.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Minassian has since become, in the wake of these attacks, an incel movement icon.

But Lee’s claims that Peterson is an incel and white nationalist are dubious. As the married father of two children, Peterson cannot accurately be defined as an incel, as Mic points out. Peterson has also publicly denounced identity politics, according to Mic, meaning that he would not affiliate with identity-driven movements such as white nationalism.

On June 13, Peterson’s attorney sent an email to Lee, threatening to sue her for libel unless she deleted her “defamatory statements” and tweeted an apology, per documents provided to Mic.


Lee deletes tweet, apologizes

That same day, Lee, in order to avoid legal action, complied with Peterson’s requests by  deleting the tweet and issuing an apology on Twitter, which read as follows:


Lee later expressed her dismay at the request, but said she feared legal action.

“I find it absurd,” Lee told Mic. “Many have actually said these things about Peterson and at much greater length.”

Peterson’s lawyer said that, had Lee not complied, he would have filed the lawsuit in Canadian court, where proving libel charges requires lower standards than in the United States.

The attorney noted that, while Peterson would not sue all of his online critics, “anyone calling Dr. Peterson that is at risk of being sued for defamation,” according to Mic.

External References

“I laugh at the death of normies”: How incels are celebrating the Toronto mass killing, Southern Poverty Law Center

Inside the online world of ‘incels,’ the dark corner of the Internet linked to the Toronto suspect, Washington Post

Jordan Peterson, Custodian of the Patriarchy, New York Times

Jordan Peterson sues Wilfrid Laurier University for defamation, The Globe and Mail

Free speech champion Jordan Peterson threatens to sue professor over Twitter name calling, Mic

Jordan Peterson profited by releasing audiotape he alleged defamed him: Defence, The Sault Star

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Originally Uploaded August 20, 2018

Updated September 11, 2018

Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Atlantic’s new opinion columnist, Kevin D. Williamson, fired two weeks after controversial Tweets and podcast interview unearthed – Washington, D.C. – April 2018

Washington, DC

After joining The Atlantic as a columnist on March 22, 2018, conservative writer Kevin D. Williamson was let go two weeks later, when a podcast from 2014, in which he elaborated on his previously expressed hard-line anti-abortion views, was revealed by Media Matters, a nonprofit group that says it monitors “conservative misinformation” in U.S. media.

Key Players

Kevin D. Williamson is a journalist who wrote for National Review, a right-leaning magazine, for 10 years, until he was hired by The Atlantic as an opinion columnist. His critics discovered bigoted tweets and other offensive comments in his prior record.

Jeffrey Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, who made the contested decisions to hire, and subsequently to fire, Williamson. In a March 22 memo sent to Atlantic staff, Goldberg explained his rationale for hiring the polarizing writer. On April 5, Goldberg wrote another memo, saying “The Atlantic is not the best fit for his [Williamson’s] talents.”

Further Details

Having served for a decade as roving correspondent for National Review, Kevin D. Williamson joined The Atlantic in March 2018 to contribute to a new section on “ideas, opinions, and commentary.”

In an internal memo obtained by Slate, Goldberg explained his rationale for hiring Williamson, saying that “I have disagreed with him more than I have agreed with him,” but that he was impressed with Williamson’s thoughtful, witty, and clear writing style — and that Williamson would be an asset to the organization’s ideological diversity. “If we are going to host debates, we have to host people who actually disagree with, and sometimes offend, the other side,” Goldberg said. “Kevin will help this cause.”

Many disagreed, however. Following Williamson’s hire (and the one article he managed to publish on April 2, 2018), liberal critics lambasted Goldberg and The Atlantic through Twitter posts and newspaper editorials. Journalists pointed out Williamson’s track record of publishing racially charged and misogynist essays. Abortion rights group Naral Pro Choice America started a Twitter campaign (#FireKevin) and complained to The Atlantic about his having been hired.

Criticism was also directed at tweets that Williamson had posted on September 28, 2014, in which he asserted that women who had abortions were, in fact, committing murder, and could be charged with homicide. When questioned in online comments whether he thought the appropriate punishment for those who had elective abortions would be life without parole, he clarified that, “I have hanging more in mind.”

The next day, Williamson brought up and defended his position on “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” the podcast he co-hosts with National Review editor Charles C. Cooke. He would later clarify these remarks in a March 26, 2015, speech at Hillsdale College, saying that he is “generally against capital punishment,” “always against ex-post-facto punishment,” and “always against lynching.”

Conservative Williamson supporters, worried that his history of inflammatory comments would put him at odds with The Atlantic and its audience, warned in March 2018 that firing him would be tantamount to silencing him, and thus hamper his Free Speech. But when Media Matters, a progressive nonprofit watchdog group, published transcript evidence of Williamson’s remarks from the 2014 podcast, Goldberg could no longer withstand the uproar.

According to The Huffington Post, Goldberg told Atlantic staff in an email that he was firing Williamson. He said that, although he thought Williamson’s tweets in 2014 had simply been “intemperate,” the podcast discussion proved that they actually represented Williamson’s “carefully considered views.” Goldberg further explained, “the language used in the podcast was callous and violent. This runs contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace.”


Kevin D. Williamson fired from columnist position for the Atlantic

Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg fired commentator Kevin D. Williamson only two weeks after he was hired. Williamson responded by publishing numerous opinion pieces, including in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. “…in this case, I obscured the more meaningful questions about abortion and sparked the sort of hysteria I’d meant to point out and mock,” Williamson wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “What matters more is the issue of how the rage-fueled tribalism of social media, especially Twitter, has infected the op-ed pages and, to some extent, the rest of journalism.”

External References

The Atlantic Cuts Ties with Conservative Writer Kevin Williamson. New York Times.

Why Would the Atlantic Hire Kevin Williamson? Slate.

Kevin D. Williamson’s Tweet about Capitall Punishment and Abortions.

The “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” Episode in which Williamson Doubles Down on His Comments.

The End of Rational Public Discourse – Kevin Williamson’s Speech to Hillsdale College.

Kevin Williamson also said on his podcast the people who’ve had abortions should be hanged.

Atlantic Fires Kevin Williamson After Suddenly Realizing He Believes The Things He Says. The Huffington Post.

When the Twitter Mob Came for Me. Wall Street Journal.

Prepared by Gustav Honl-Stuenkel ‘20

Uploaded August 20, 2018


Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Boston tavern blasted online after serving ‘free speech group’ with possible hate affiliations – June 2018

Boston, MA

In June 2018, a tavern in Boston, Massachusetts, was heavily criticized online after serving patrons who had come from a “free speech” rally hosted by a group with far-right affiliations. Critics claimed the patrons in the restaurant were openly wearing hate symbols and intimidating other customers, but the owners of the restaurant denied that characterization. Eventually, the negative online rhetoric grew so intense that Yelp, an online review forum, removed reviews on the restaurant’s page about the incident, a common practice the company uses for establishments involved in controversy.

Key Players

Noelle and Sean Somers have owned the Green Dragon Tavern, located near Boston’s Freedom Trail, which connects numerous historic sites, for 25 years. It was named after a historical tavern — which some historians have called the “Headquarters of the American Revolution” — where the Sons of Liberty and other rebels against English rule of the American colonies often met. Though the contemporary Green Dragon publicizes itself as “a favorite haunt of Paul Revere…and John Hancock,” and claims to have “a long and rich history, playing an important part in the freedom of Boston during the War of Independence,” according to its website, it is located at a different address from the original and is apparently unrelated to the historical establishment in any official capacity.

The Boston Free Speech Coalition (BFSC) is an activist group that describes itself as non-partisan, saying it stands “for free speech in all forms from all sides of the political spectrum.” However, several of the group’s recent activities, including pro-gun rights events and a “March Against Sharia Law,” indicate that it has a right-leaning agenda.

The group has held several “free speech rallies” over the past year, in conjunction with the conservative group Resist Marxism; these events have also sometimes taken a far-right tack, and have included speakers who accused the advocacy group Black Lives Matter of being a terrorist organization, according to

An August 2017 rally organized by the BFSC — which took place soon after the violent “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — originally had speakers with white supremacist and other racist ties scheduled to speak, according to The Boston Globe. One of these was Augustus Invictus, an activist involved in the Charlottesville rally who had gained white supremacist support while vying for a Florida Senate seat in 2016; Invictus was disinvited from the Boston rally in 2017, due to his “willingness to support violence, as well as his Holocaust denial,” one member of the BFSC told the Globe.

Further Details

On June 2, 2018, the BFSC and Resist Marxism organized a pro-free speech and pro-gun rights rally outside the Massachusetts statehouse entitled “June 2nd for the Second.” Though neither group’s primary focus is Second Amendment gun rights, the rally was intended to protest proposed “red flag” legislation that would allow for the temporary confiscation of firearms from individuals considered to pose a threat to themselves or others. On July 3, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed that “red flag” legislation into law.

Following the June 2 rally, a group of attendees went to the Green Dragon Tavern for lunch. Whether the patrons openly displayed any apparent affiliations with hate groups at the time remains unclear. But in a review of the restaurant on Yelp, one person claimed, “I was there and a group of about 20 idiots openly wearing swastikas and other white supremacist symbols walked in. They were purposely intimidating other patrons even after management was informed several times and they did NOTHING!!”

However, Noelle and Sean Somers both insisted that the rally attendees were not wearing anything to suggest they were affiliated with a hate group, and did not appear to be intimidating other customers. “The group was quiet, non-descript. They weren’t wearing anything to show hate or anything of that nature,” Noelle Somers told Boston 25 News.

A group of people who were not patrons of the tavern arrived outside the restaurant and, declaring to the manager that the Green Dragon was serving neo-Nazis, demanded the rally attendees be kicked out.

“None of these people were patrons. Not once did a patron within our establishment voice concern,” Noelle Somers insisted.

The manager approached the rally attendees inside to ensure they were not promoting hateful ideologies or threatening other restaurant patrons, but the group outside was unsatisfied by this effort, according to footage from a security camera that was shared with media outlets, including CBS Boston.

“They did say they had a large network and they would take us down” if ejected, Somers told Boston 25.

Within a week of the incident, the establishment received more than 125 negative comments on social media platforms such as Facebook and Yelp. as well as calls for boycotts, according to CBS Boston. “This bar knowingly served Neo-Nazis, which put other customers in danger. I don’t know what the management was thinking,” read one Yelp review. The Boston Feminists for Liberation wrote on Facebook that the tavern had been “playing host to members of women hating, gay bashing, white supremacist groups,” reported Boston 25.

The Somers made efforts to clarify their position and clear their restaurant’s name, including calling a press conference on June 8. “We have never and will never tolerate hate, and for it to be portrayed that we do is just disgusting,” Noelle Somers said. “If there is any racist propaganda put out or doing a Nazi salute or someone saying something racially, in any way shape or form to another person, they will not be allowed in,” she told CBS Boston.

The tavern owners said they were dismayed not only by the negative online rhetoric, but also by the subpar monitoring efforts of the platforms their critics used, particularly Facebook and Yelp. In their view, the companies’ complacency allowed critics to launch a misinformation campaign against their restaurant.

“We have been victimized by a coordinated social media smear campaign that has damaged our family business. Protest groups have falsely accused us of catering to Nazis, which is outrageous and disgusting,” the couple wrote Newsweek. “We now demand that media platforms such as Yelp, Twitter and Facebook incorporate stricter editorial policies to prevent false information from spreading in the future.”


Yelp issues an “active cleanup alert”

Yelp soon responded to the onslaught of dozens of negative reviews of the Green Dragon Tavern related to this encounter, according to Boston 25. Yelp’s policies dictate that posts unrelated to an establishment’s quality — such as those about its politics or controversies it is involved in — are irrelevant to the site’s purpose and should be removed. These policies are intended to help protect the reputation of establishments embroiled in conflict or receiving significant media attention by ensuring the posts substantively discuss the establishment’s intended service.

“When local businesses make the news or do something controversial, their Yelp business page can be affected. Many people come to Yelp to share their views about the news. Media-fueled reviews typically violate our Content Guidelines, one of which deals with relevance,” the online review forum told Newsweek.

Such alerts remain active until the page’s traffic returns to normal. As of July 24, 2018, the alert for the Green Dragon Tavern was still active: “This business is being monitored by Yelp’s Support team for content related to media reports,” the warning read.

External References

Who is the Boston Free Speech Coalition behind Saturday’s rally?, The Boston Globe

Boston free speech rally draws supporters, protesters,

Gun activists protest proposed ‘red flag’ legislation, The Boston Herald

Restaurant Accused of Serving Nazis After Free Speech Rally Fights Back, Newsweek

Boston tavern owners say they’ve fallen victim to online bullies, Boston 25 News

Boston Bar Fights Back Over ‘Slander’ For Serving Neo-Nazi Group, CBS Boston

Baker Signs ‘Red Flag’ Gun Bill, CBS Boston

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Uploaded July 26, 2018

Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Roseanne reboot cancelled after star’s racist tweet – May 2018

Los Angeles, CA

In May 2018, comedienne Roseanne Barr tweeted a racist comment about Valerie Jarrett, a close adviser to former President Barack Obama who is African-American and Iranian-born. Barr was sharply rebuked by her network and her colleagues. Within a few hours, her hit show Roseanne — a reboot of her acclaimed series from the 1980s and 90s — was cancelled by ABC. A month later, the network announced plans to produce of a spin-off program without Barr.

Key Players

Roseanne Barr is a television personality who gained prominence for her popular sitcom Roseanne, which won acclaim for its realistic depiction of working-class white American families. The show ran from 1988 to 1997 and was revived for a nine-episode run in 2018. The reboot’s premiere episode reached approximately 27 million viewers, and the 2018 season overall drew in an estimated $45 million in advertising revenue for its network, ABC, according to The New York Times.

Barr has a history of perpetuating debunked conspiracy theories on her Twitter account, sharing unsubstantiated information about the “Pizzagate” theory that prominent Democrats were involved in child sex trafficking in the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant, for example, and calling billionaire philanthropist George Soros a Nazi. She has also been an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump.

Valerie Jarrett was a senior adviser and influential aide to former President Barack Obama. Jarrett, who is African-American, was born in Iran to American parents, leading to conspiracy theories around her ethnicity and religion.

Further Details

On May 29, 2018, Barr tweeted a racist comment about Jarrett in response to false claims that she had helped Obama plant an informant in Trump’s campaign. “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” she wrote, in reference to Jarrett.

The tweet elicited outrage online and from Barr’s colleagues and the ABC network. Wanda Sykes, a black comedienne who worked as a producer for Roseanne, quit immediately. Sara Gilbert, the actress who portrayed Barr’s daughter on the show, said she was “disappointed in her actions to say the least.” Barr was also dropped by her agency, ICM Partners, according to USA Today.

Less than an hour after the initial tweet, Barr posted an apology to her Twitter account.

“I apologize to Valerie Jarrett and to all Americans,” she tweeted. “I am truly sorry for making a bad joke about her politics and her looks. I should have known better. Forgive me – my joke was in bad taste.” She subsequently announced that she was leaving Twitter, but returned later that day and posted a since-deleted explanation of her behavior:

“It was 2 in the morning and I was ambien tweeting,” she wrote. “It was memorial day too-i went 2 far & do not want it defended-it was egregious Indefensible. I made a mistake I wish I hadn’t but…don’t defend it please.”

Jarrett, speaking at an MSNBC town hall on racism on May 29, said that “we have to turn it into a teaching moment,” according to the New York Times.

In an interview released June 23, her first since the controversy, Barr lamented the actions that led to her firing and expressed remorse for her comment. “I lost everything and I regretted it before I lost everything,” she said in a podcast interview. “I never would have wittingly called any black person … they are a monkey. […] I just wouldn’t do that. I didn’t do that.”


ABC axes Roseanne reboot

Just hours after Barr’s tweet about Jarrett, ABC announced the cancellation of the Roseanne revival in a statement that rebuked the star and distanced the network from her.

“Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values,” ABC’s entertainment president Channing Dungey wrote. The network decided to remove the show from its own site and from the streaming service Hulu, which is also owned by Disney, ABC’s parent company.

The decision to cancel Roseanne drew both praise and criticism. Supporters lauded ABC for cancelling the show in the wake of Barr’s comment, despite its strong ratings and advertising revenue. However, some, such as the well-known right-wing radio host Alex Jones, himself the promoter of the “Pizzagate” and other conspiracy theories, likened the program’s cancellation to a suppression of conservative voices.

ABC greenlights Roseanne spinoff without Barr

On June 21, ABC announced it would be producing a spin-off of Roseanne without its eponymous star. The show, tentatively titled The Conners, will center on the namesake family of Barr’s character.

“Roseanne Barr will have no financial or creative involvement in the new series,” the company wrote. It said, however, that some of the other stars of Roseanne would be returning and have expressed their enthusiasm for the upcoming new series.

“We have received a tremendous amount of support from fans of our show, and it’s clear that these characters not only have a place in our hearts, but in the hearts and homes of our audience,” several of the cast members wrote in a press release, according to CNN.

“I agreed to the settlement in order that 200 jobs of beloved cast and crew could be saved, and I wish the best for everyone involved,” Barr said in a June 21 statement, CNN reported.

ABC has ordered ten episodes of The Conners, which is slated to air in the fall of 2018.

External References

Defending Trump, Roseanne Wants Her Show to Be ‘Realistic’, The New York Times

After Racist Tweet, Roseanne Barr’s Show Is Canceled by ABC, The New York Times

Twitter Users Respond to Roseanne Barr’s Firing, The New York Times

Inside Roseanne Barr’s history of offensive tweets, USA Today

‘The Conners’ is happening, without Roseanne Barr, CNN

Roseanne breaks down in first interview since being fired from ABC show, The Hill

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Uploaded July 20, 2018

Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Two Pittsburgh journalists fired over editorial disagreements – June 2018

Pittsburgh, PA

Within a span of three weeks, two Pittsburgh newspapers fired longtime staff members over editorial disagreements. In May 2018, the editor of the Pittsburgh City Paper was fired after ignoring requests to tone down its critical coverage of a local conservative politician. In June 2018, a veteran editorial cartoonist for the more mainstream Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was fired after his work was repeatedly sidelined for months, drawing speculation of censorship over ideological differences.

Key Players

Pittsburgh CIty Paper is a prominent alternative newsweekly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a circulation of about 70,000. The paper has been characterized as leaning in the liberal direction; the Post-Gazette once called City Paper “among the region’s most unabashedly liberal publications.” In 2016, City Paper was purchased by the Eagle Media Corporation, which also owns the Butler Eagle, a daily newspaper in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.

Charlie Deitch joined the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2005, and worked as its editor from 2014 until he was fired in May 2018.

Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican, has represented Pennsylvania’s 12th district in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives since 1999. His district, which encompasses part of Butler County in western Pennsylvania, includes a number of small towns as well as the more metropolitan Cranberry Township, where nearly half of the district’s residents live. Ninety-six percent of the district’s population is white.

Metcalfe has been criticized in the pages of City Paper for his stance on issues like LGBTQ rights and for his alleged obstructionism.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is the largest daily newspaper in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, with a daily circulation of nearly 175,000.

The Post-Gazette was born out of a twentieth-century merger of two major Pittsburgh newspapers: The Pittsburgh Gazette began publishing in 1786 and, throughout the nineteenth century, leaned strongly Republican and supported the election of Abraham Lincoln. The Pittsburgh Post began publishing in 1842 and had pro-Democratic leanings, having evolved out of three pro-Democratic weekly papers. In 1927, William Randolph Hearst purchased The Pittsburgh Gazette, by then renamed The Gazette Time, and sold it to Paul Block, who had recently bought out the Pittsburgh Post. Block merged the two newspapers that year.

Though the paper has been historically regarded as liberal, it began to shift to the political right in the spring of 2018.

Rob Rogers worked as the staff cartoonist at the Post-Gazette from 1993 until June 2018, when he was fired. His editorial cartoons have also been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Newsweek, among other publications. Rogers has received numerous accolades for his work, including being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.

Keith Burris is vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers, the media company that owns both the Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade, a daily Ohio paper. In March 2018, the editorial boards — and thus the editorial page operations — of the two papers were merged, and Burris was appointed to lead the combined operation, according to the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR).

Further Details

Early in May 2018, under Deitch’s editorial leadership, the City Paper published critical comments about Metcalfe. On May 2, the paper published an editorial by “CP staff” entitled “Pennsylvania Rep. Daryl Metcalfe has proven himself unfit for office.” It called his beliefs “racist, xenophobic, close-minded and full of general numb-skullery” and criticized his alleged obstructionist tendencies. Less than a week later, the paper’s political blog ran a story headlined “State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe’s pro-gun rally attracted support of group with white-supremacist origins.” Deitch also had a story in the works about a bill to expand protections against discrimination toward the LGBTQ community, which discussed Metcalfe’s obstruction of the legislation, according to the Post-Gazette.

On May 8, Raymond Sielski, then the acting general manager of City Paper, sent an email to Deitch discussing the paper’s political coverage.

“Charlie, Can you redirect your anti Metcalf [sic] efforts toward let’s say maybe Pittsburgh politics,” Sielski wrote. “Are we not running any local races that [City Paper] readership might like to hear about relevant to Pittsburgh?”

Later that day, Deitch alleged, Sielski told him his critical coverage of Metcalfe risked poisoning the relationship between the influential local legislator and the Butler Eagle’s parent company, and asked him to retract articles about Metcalfe, according to the CJR. In addition to the publications it owns, the Eagle Media Corporation owns the Harmony Outdoor billboard company and the Butler Color Press, which produces advertising materials, according to the Pennsylvania News Media Association. Deitch said he refused the request to alter his coverage of Metcalfe, citing journalistic ethics.

In a separate and unrelated incident just weeks later, Rogers, a long-time cartoonist at the Post-Gazette, saw a number of his cartoons — mostly ones that were critical of President Donald Trump — go unpublished.

Rogers said that over his more than three decades working at the newspaper, he has generally seen only two or three cartoons a year rejected by his editors. In contrast, between March and June 2018, the editors rejected nine of his ideas and killed 10 of his finished cartoons. The matter drew attention when the Post-Gazette declined to publish any of Rogers’ cartoons between May 24 and June 5, a particularly long stretch for the well-known cartoonist not to appear in the newspaper that employs him.

Many of Rogers’ rejected cartoons criticized Trump, while others parodied such controversies as the National Football League’s new rules on players kneeling during the National Anthem and actress Roseanne Barr’s recent racist tweetstorm that got her fired from a revived television series. His last cartoon published in the Post-Gazette, which was printed on June 5, mocked recently-imposed steel tariffs. Rogers subsequently took the rest of that week off from work as “things were still unresolved with management,” according to The Washington Post.

“Suffice it to say things are unresolved,” Rogers said in a June 9 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I am still employed at this point. I’m waiting each day to hear something.”

The left-leaning nature of Rogers’ work drew speculation that his cartoons were rejected over ideological differences with the paper’s leadership, according to CNN. The uptick in the number of cartoons rejected comes after the merger of the editorial pages of the Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade. Rogers noted that, until the last several months, he had worked under John Robinson Block, the publisher of both newspapers, for decades without problems.

In 2016, Block and Burris were reported to have spent time with Trump on his plane following a campaign rally. Block was separately photographed with the president another time that year, according to CNN.

In January 2018, two months before Burris’s appointment to run the combined editorial page operation, an unsigned editorial was published in both the Post-Gazette and the Blade targeting critics who call Trump a racist. “Calling someone a racist is the new McCarthyism,” read the editorial, which drew sharp criticism from the local community and from staff members. Weeks later, Burris was identified as the author, according to CJR.


Deitch is fired from Pittsburgh City Paper

On May 15, Deitch was fired from the City Paper. When he arrived at his office that morning, he said, he was informed by Sielski and Vernon Wise, the president of Eagle Media Corporation, that he “had to go.” Two hours later, a statement attributed to Wise announced that longtime sportswriter Rob Rossi had been hired to replace Deitch as editor of City Paper.

“Today we had to make the very difficult decision to part ways with our editor, Charlie Deitch,” the release read. “Change is always difficult, and this was a difficult day. We are committed to the employees of CP, who work hard every day to put together a publication that we can all be proud of.”

Wise told the Post-Gazette that Deitch’s political coverage of Metcalfe was not a factor in his termination, but declined to discuss the matter further.

Rogers is fired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On June 14, Rogers was fired by the Post-Gazette at an off-site meeting with two human resources representatives, who asked him to turn in his identification badge and any equipment owned by the newspaper. He was reportedly offered the opportunity to work as an independent contractor not on the staff, but he declined, according to the Post-Gazette.

“Things really changed for me in March, when management decided that my cartoons about the president were ‘too angry’ and said I was ‘obsessed with Trump.’ This about a president who has declared the free press one of the greatest threats to our country,” Rogers wrote in a June 15 op-ed in The New York Times. “After so many years of punch lines and caricatures, skewering mayors and mullahs, the new regime at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette decided that The Donald trumped satire when it came to its editorial pages.”

“The editors of the Post-Gazette are keenly aware of Mr. Rogers’ talents, history with this newspaper and standing in this community,” the editorial board of the Post-Gazette wrote on June 15. “There has never been any intention to silence or suppress Mr. Rogers. Nor would we ever ask him to violate the dictates of his conscience. Rather, we have sought to engage in the necessary journalistic practices of editing, gatekeeping and collaboration.”

“Rob’s recent absence from these pages has occurred as we have sought a structure and platform for future collaboration,” the statement continued. “Alas, we have not been able to find that way forward, and we now part ways with Rob in a spirit of gratitude and affection.”

External References

Eagle Media Corp. purchases Pittsburgh City Paper, Pennsylvania News Media Association

New editorial leadership announced at Pittsburgh City Paper, Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh City Paper fires editor after disagreement on coverage of state legislator, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

‘I refused’: Fired City Paper editor claims efforts to suppress coverage, Columbia Journalism Review

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s baffling editorial decision, Columbia Journalism Review

Pittsburgh paper spikes work of longtime editorial cartoonist, CNN

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cartoonist is seeing many anti-Trump cartoons spiked, The Washington Post

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cartoonist speaks out about having his Trump cartoons killed, Philadelphia Inquirer

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette fires editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Cartoonist Fired as Paper Shifts Right, The New York Times

I Was Fired for Making Fun of Trump, New York Times

Rob Rogers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Uploaded July 18, 2018