OPINION

Trump's Vile Remarks About Ford Show Me Too Is A Free Speech Issue

President Donald Trump had been uncharacteristically quiet about Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her 36 years ago. That changed on Tuesday night, when Trump mocked Ford’s testimony about the alleged sexual assault at a rally in Mississippi. The president sneered at Ford’s inability to remember details of the attack. The crowd laughed, in much the same way Ford says Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge laughed while attempting to rape her when she was 15.

Trump’s remarks were quickly and widely condemned ― including by Republicans. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) termed the speech “appalling,” and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) called it “just plain wrong.”

Trump’s remarks are being treated, rightly, as another sign of his incivility, cruelty and sexism. Few have pointed out, though, that they are also a disturbing and deliberate attack on free speech — an effort to silence government critics in a clear violation of the First Amendment. 

Discussions of free speech tend to focus on concerns about the suppression of unpopular ideas or viewpoints. High profile figures like Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson have warned that conservative ideas are being silenced on college campuses. In this context, the Me Too movement itself has been criticized as repressing sexual expression and speech. 

And yet, a moment’s thought should make it clear that Me Too is, centrally, about the right to speak freely.

In the past, women were discouraged from talking about their experiences of sexual assault. Women traditionally have been blamed when men catcall them, or harass them or assault them ― and often still are.

Even as times have changed, women who come forward with sexual abuse allegations are frequently shamed, insulted and punished with public censure. In the workplace they may be demoted, fired or forced out of a job.

In many cases, the most dangerous utterance one can make in the public sphere is not “I don’t believe in climate change,” or even “I support BDS” (the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting Isreal), but “I have been assaulted.”

Me Too is dedicated to changing all this, by insisting not just that women who speak about sexual harassment should be believed, but that they should be respected and, most importantly, that they should not be punished or policed.  Me Too demands that women should be able to speak the truth without having their careers and lives destroyed. It is an attempt to give women, and victims of every gender, access to free speech. 

Trump’s mockery of Ford even more starkly underlines the free speech implications of Me Too. In her statement last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ford said she had agonized over the decision to speak publicly. “I was calculating daily the risk/benefit for me of coming forward, and wondering whether I would just be jumping in front of a train that was headed to where it was headed anyway and that I would just be personally annihilated,” she said.

In other words, a citizen of the United States had material, important information to bring to the public about a candidate for high office, but was afraid that she would be destroyed for speaking truth to power. That doesn’t sound like public debate in a democracy. It sounds like the fear you’d expect under a totalitarian regime.

Me Too is, centrally, about the right to speak freely.

Ford’s concerns were fully justified. She has received credible death threats and has been forced to flee her home and hire a security detail. Her personal information has been posted on the internet. Her accounts have been hacked.  “Apart from the assault itself,” she said in her Senate testimony, “these last couple of weeks have been the hardest of my life.”

Trump is well aware that Ford has received a barrage of harassment. And he knows that, as president, he has a unique ability to make her a partisan target. His comments in Mississippi weren’t just inappropriate and cruel. They were a deliberate effort to silence not just Ford, but all sexual assault survivors. Trump framed Kavanaugh, and all men, as victims of out of control accusations of sexual assault, and referred to those who support the accusations as “evil people.” 

The most powerful man in the world is letting sexual assault survivors know that if they come forward, he will use the power of his office to destroy them.

In framing Ford as an evil aggressor, Trump is following in the footsteps of harassment campaigns like Gamergate. He is telling his followers that Ford deserves no sympathy, and encouraging his followers to direct further threats and intimidation at her. As Michael Bromwich, Ford’s lawyer, said, “Is it any wonder that she was terrified to come forward, and that other sexual assault survivors are as well?”

The most powerful man in the world is letting sexual assault survivors know that if they come forward, he will use the power of his office to destroy them.

Trump has been accused of sexual assault by more than 20 women. His barely implicit threat to survivors is meant to intimidate not just critics of his appointees, but anyone who would challenge him personally, as well.

Trump’s incivility and gross sexism is ugly and inappropriate. But it’s also a deliberate tactic to terrorize women who dare to criticize him and threaten his hold on power. Remember that a woman who accused Trump of raping her when she was underage canceled plans to speak publicly just before the 2016 election because she was afraid of reprisals, according to her attorney.

Using the office of the presidency to silence criticism is a clear violation of the spirit of the First Amendment, and I’d argue of its letter as well. If you don’t have the freedom to say, “the president assaulted me,” then what is freedom of speech worth?

In attacking Christine Blasey Ford, Trump violated his oath to protect the Constitution. His Mississippi speech was in itself an impeachable offense; an abuse of presidential authority designed to subvert democracy and to replace liberty with terror. Trump has once again shown that misogyny and authoritarianism go hand in hand.

When women can’t speak, no one is free. 

Noah Berlatsky is the author most recently of Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism. 

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