MANHATTAN (CN) – A literary advocacy group filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday claiming President Donald Trump’s robust threats to use his powers to punish critical media coverage chills writers’ free speech in violation of the First Amendment.
Pointing to Trump’s attacks against The Washington Post, Amazon, CNN, Time Warner and members of the White House press corps, PEN America claims he has repeatedly threatened to use the mechanisms of his administration’s government power to retaliate against journalists and media companies for the content of their coverage.
The group’s 26-page lawsuit – filed in Manhattan federal court by lead attorney Kristy Parker with the Protect Democracy Project – claims it is the president’s “intentional interference and actions with the aim of exerting improper influence that creates the First Amendment harm.”
“President Trump has First Amendment rights and is free to criticize the press vehemently, but he is not free to use the power and authority of the United States government to punish and stifle it,” according to PEN America’s complaint, which seeks a judgment declaring Trump violated the First Amendment when he used the power of the federal government “with intent to retaliate against or otherwise constrain speech critical of him or his administration.”
The lawsuit also seeks an injunction blocking Trump from directing government agencies to retaliate against journalists for their speech.
According to an accompanying statement from the literary organization, Trump could be held in contempt of court if he were to violate such an injunction.
“These actions by the court would lift the sword of Damocles that is currently hanging over the heads of all media entities, executives, writers, and journalists contemplating, writing, or publishing criticism of the president,” wrote PEN America’s President Jennifer Egan and CEO Suzanne Nossel.
PEN America alleges Trump issued an executive order initiating a government review of the U.S. Postal Service’s financial practices in order to raise Amazon’s postal rates in retaliation against critical coverage in The Washington Post.
According to PEN America, Trump has proclaimed his vendetta against Post owner and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos since the 2016 presidential campaign, during which then-candidate Trump said of Bezos and Amazon at rally, “If I become president, oh do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems.”
The lawsuit claims Trump personally directed U.S. Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the rate the Postal Service charges Amazon and other firms to ship packages. This month, the Postal Service announced proposed rate increases, including a 12-percent increase for the Parcel Select service used by Amazon.
The complaint also alleges that Trump was motivated by “his deep-seated animus toward CNN for the content of its reporting” when he threatened Department of Justice antitrust enforcement action in the merger of CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, with AT&T.
The filing also points to Trump’s threats to restrict press access and revoke White House press credentials, which were followed by the removal of CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins from a Rose Garden press conference in July for asking questions the White House deemed “inappropriate.”
A Justice Department spokesman declined Tuesday to comment on the complaint.
Egan became president of PEN America this year. She won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” which illustrates a vaguely dsytopian near-future where social media and mechanization have taken over the forefront of society.
PEN America also filed an ethics complaint last year against Greg Gianforte, the Republican who reportedly body-slammed a reporter the night before winning a U.S. House special election in Montana.
Trump has four campaign rallies scheduled in the next week to build up Republican support ahead of next month’s midterm elections, where he is likely to continue air his grievances against the “fake news” media.