WASHINGTON — On Monday, Free Press and Free Press Action Fund sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission’s general counsel calling on the agency to address its crackdowns against First Amendment freedoms during recent FCC meetings.
“We write to express grave concerns about recent actions that call into serious question the Federal Communications Commission’s commitment to fostering free expression,” reads the letter authored by Free Press and Free Press Action Fund Deputy Director and Senior Counsel Jessica J. González and Policy Director Matt Wood. “In particular, the actions of FCC security and other FCC staff have chilled free speech and public participation in FCC decision-making processes that are supposed to be open to the public, and they have violated the due-process rights of Free Press and Free Press Action Fund staff and members.”
The letter details a series of incidents in which the federal agency and members of its security staff have silenced dissenting voices, manhandled a reporter and barred members of the public from attending the agency’s monthly open meeting without due process.
During one incident, on the morning of March 23, 2017, two Free Press Action Fund members, Joe DeGeorge and David Combs, attempted to attend the FCC’s open meeting wearing plain white T-shirts that read “Protect Net Neutrality” in black letters. FCC security personnel informed the two that they would not be allowed to enter the public meeting room unless they removed the T-shirts or flipped them inside out to conceal their message.
“This was a clear-cut violation of Mr. DeGeorge’s and Mr. Combs’ constitutional right to free speech,” reads the letter. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment safeguards people’s rights to express their disagreement with government policies, even in limited public forums like the FCC meeting room.”
“It’s beyond ironic that the government agency charged with promoting First Amendment values is intent on violating them in the Trump era,” said González. “The infringement of the First Amendment rights of DeGeorge and Combs isn’t an isolated event, but one in a growing series of FCC efforts to stifle free speech and public participation at open meetings. Many of these attempts to limit public speech and participation have targeted those who question or disagree with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the Trump administration over their plans to limit free speech on the internet by repealing Net Neutrality rules.”
On May 18, after the FCC’s May open meeting and press conference ended, agency security staff manhandled a CQ Roll Call reporter for attempting to ask Commissioner Michael O’Rielly a question in a public area outside the open-meeting room.
Free Press and Free Press Action Fund are calling on the agency to apologize to those targeted, and respond to a list of demands, including providing a clear explanation of the FCC policy to protect the First Amendment rights of the public and reporters to peacefully participate in future agency open meetings.
On Friday, Free Press Action Fund joined PEN America, the Society of Professional Journalists and Reporters Without Borders to file a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics, urging it to investigate and discipline Rep. Greg Gianforte (R–Montana) for reportedly body-slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs on May 24. Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault following the incident. The alleged attack occurred after Jacobs asked Gianforte a question about the Republican health-care plan.
Read the complaint: