President Trump stands by his right to say anything about anyone — including his right to use language that, arguably, provokes violence.
But the Trump presidency has a way of chilling speech from others.
Delta Air Lines and Bank of America just backed out as corporate sponsors for a production of “Julius Caesar” by New York’s Public Theater, after online criticism from conservatives about the staging, which features a Trump look-alike as Caesar. True to Shakespeare’s plotline, the character is stabbed to death. That, said Delta, “crossed the line on the standards of good taste” — never mind that, in 2012, Delta sponsored a “Julius Caesar” in Minneapolis, featuring a character who called to mind Barack Obama. In pulling out as a sponsor, Bank of America also said the New York play was produced “in a way that was intended to provoke and offend. Had this intention been known to us, we would have decided not to sponsor it.”
These major corporate cave-ins follow CNN’s firing of Kathy Griffin, after she posed holding a prop that looked like Trump’s bloody, severed head. CNN also fired Reza Aslan, the host of a show on religion, after he, uncharmingly, called Trump a “piece of” excrement on Twitter.
It’s a crime to make a threat against a president; and speech, in general, that incites violence may not be protected by the First Amendment. The test is intent. Ironically, Trump is named in a lawsuit that accuses him of inciting violence against protesters at a March 2016 campaign rally in Louisville, Ky. At that event, Trump repeatedly said “get ’em out of here” and protesters were subsequently shoved and punched by Trump supporters. As summarized in The Washington Post, Trump’s lawyers argued he didn’t intend for his supporters to use force, and the case should be dismissed on free speech grounds. But in April, a federal judge in Kentucky allowed the suit to go forward, ruling there’s evidence the protesters’ injuries were “a direct proximate result” of Trump’s words. “It is plausible that Trump’s direction to ‘get ’em out of here’ advocated the use of force,” wrote Judge David J. Hale. “It was an order, an instruction, a command.”
Griffin’s bad joke, while disturbing, wasn’t an order to commit violence, and Aslan’s bad language certainly wasn’t either. But CNN, which is lambasted routinely by Trump as the purveyor of “fake news,” decided that neither presented a free speech battle worth fighting.
Delta and Bank of America apparently reached the same conclusion when they decided to pull out as sponsors of “Julius Caesar.” Other sponsors include The New York Times, which is sticking with a show that unquestionably uses Trump as a modern day muse. As Times reviewer Jesse Green put it, “Its depiction of a petulant, blondish Caesar in a blue suit, complete with a gold bathtub and pouty Slavic wife, takes onstage Trump-trolling to a startling new level.”
Outrage from conservatives revved up even more after Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted, “I wonder how much of this ‘art’ is funded by taxpayers?” (The National Endowment for the Arts has said that the production received no NEA funds.) Then, after the two sponsors pulled out, Trump’s son Eric tweeted his thanks for doing “the right thing.” It was not the right thing to do, from a free speech perspective, or from any appreciation of Shakespeare’s great tragedy. As even the Cliffs Notes version of the play points out, this is no ode to assassination. Caesar’s killers believed they were doing the right thing to stop a power-hungry tyrant, but in a famous speech, Caesar’s closest friend, Mark Antony turns the citizenry against them. The ringleaders end up taking their own lives.
Making Caesar a Trump-like figure is bound to be contentious in the current environment. But the play is speech, pure and simple, and should be protected. With or without a Trump look-alike on stage, “Julius Caesar” does not incite violence. It incites thought, a concept perhaps even more frightening to the president.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.