When the attorney and LGBTQ rights activist Melanie Nathan immigrated to the United States from apartheid South Africa, one of the first things she bought for her first apartment were several books on Nelson Mandela— items she was formerly forbidden to own. When her father visited her in the U.S., he implored Nathan to hide the books. “Dad! We’re safe,” she reassured him. “This is America.”
Three decades later, Nathan herself is being silenced by her government.
Nathan, a prominent activist for the LGBTQ community, was recently contracted by NAVAIR, which is under the command of the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense, to speak at two of their bases for Pride month at the end of June. After deliberating on speech topics, NAVAIR accepted her fee and proposal to speak on “Generations of Strength,” also the theme of this year’s San Francisco Pride. Though Nathan is outspoken about politics on her personal blog and social media, she had agreed it would be an educational speech. “I had, in advance,” she told Ms., “agreed that I would not be speaking to politics at all.”
Nevertheless, after signing a contract for the speech, NAVAIR, in a stunning turn of events, emailed Nathan to inform her that she would no longer be welcome to speak at their event because of her criticism of President Trump on her Twitter. “It was quite a blow,” she remembered, “and I sort of sat with it awhile—quite stunned.”
Nathan is now being represented by prominent civil rights attorney Lisa Bloom, known for representing women who accused Fox personality Bill O’Reilly of sexual harassment and for representing Kathy Griffin last year after she posted a provocative photograph holding what appeared to be the severed head of the president. “Political speech is afforded the highest level of protection under the first amendment,” Bloom told Ms. “We are all free to criticize our president, our politicians, our government. That is the core of what the first amendment is designed to protect.”
Nathan and Bloom have since sent a formal letter to the Navy asking them to reinstate the speaking engagement. “Melanie’s case is crystal clear,” Bloom declared. “She had an agreement to speak in writing, a promise to pay her, a clear description of what she was going to say—that was approved—and when and where it was to take place. And then in writing they told her that the only reason that they were attempting to cancel it was because of her political speech on Twitter, criticizing the president. That is a clear first amendment violation.”
The decision by NAVAIR comes on the heels of a federal judge’s rule that President Trump is violating the first amendment by blocking his critics—including Nathan—on Twitter. His attempts to silence his detractors raise the question of what kind of environment and “culture of fear,” as Nathan says, is being created by Trump’s administration.
“It enrages me that an agent of the U.S. government feels empowered to say that, notwithstanding the first amendment,” said Bloom. “I think our president is pushing us toward an authoritarian regime, where everybody is supposed to show loyalty toward him, and anybody who doesn’t can be fired, and that is just so un-American. This is not North Korea.” (Ironically, Trump recently “joked” on Fox News that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “speaks and his people sit up at attention—I want my people to do the same.”)
Attempts to discourage dissent won’t slow Nathan’s pursuit of justice—and a deserving platform to celebrate equality and progress. “It’s so important for people to be able to speak out,” Bloom said. “If they did not want to hire Melanie in the first place, they could have not hired her. But they did hire her—and then to be so blatant as to fire her for this reason is such a clear constitutional violation.”
Nathan, who has spent much of her life advocating for other people’s rights instead of her own, believes that it is crucial to speak up—for herself, for her community and for the common cause of democracy. “To be repressed or feel any form of oppression, 30 years after that,” she told Ms., remembering her father’s fear over the books in her room, “is unfathomable. That’s not what I came here for.”