Progressives were once the most vigorous defenders of the rights to free speech and free association guaranteed by the First Amendment. Today, they pose the biggest threat to those rights. In fact, as the current hysteria on the Left about unregulated political advertising demonstrates, progressives view unfettered political expression – the First Amendment’s raison d’etre – as a menace to the Republic.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has been speaking out this summer about the Left’s increasing “militant intolerance for dissent.” I spoke with him recently about this threat to the First Amendment and learned that he’s been championing the cause of free speech for four decades – since teaching a course on the American political process as a struggling young lawyer during the Watergate era.
Sen. McConnell hearkens back to that era in describing the obsession of Barack Obama and his allies with forcing non-profit advocacy groups to disclose the names of their donors. “[W]hen they say they want disclosure, what they really mean is we want the opportunity to go after those on our enemies list. It’s quite reminiscent of Richard Nixon … It’s a genuine threat to free speech.”
McConnell told me that large donors to the Romney campaign are near the top of the President’s enemies list. The Obama campaign attacked eight of those contributors on its web site, accusing them of having “less-than-reputable records,” of “betting against America,” and worse. The charges are unfounded but the message is clear: contribute to Mitt Romney and the President will put your name on a virtual “Wanted” poster.
McConnell also calls attention to the long-running weekly conference calls between White House officials and David Brock’s Media Matters, a left-wing group that the Obama campaign has cozied up to despite its anti-Semitic rants and anti-Christian mission statement. Media Matters focuses on running corporate intimidation campaigns aimed at silencing conservative media, so it’s not hard to guess what’s on the conference call agenda.
Intimidation campaigns are found throughout the Obama Administration, says McConnell. Among the examples he cites are Health and Human Services’ gag order on private health insurers – forbidding them to inform seniors about the implications of Obamacare – and the IRS’s demand that dozens of Tea Party-affiliated groups turn over their attendance lists, meeting transcripts, and donor information. NAACP v. Alabama, the landmark 1958 Supreme Court decision that protected the civil rights group from similar demands and affirmed the freedom of association, be damned.
McConnell notes that the President’s “Nixonian fixation on enemies” trickles down to his allies outside the government. In just one of myriad examples, the progressive Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has called on its friends at the FCC to revoke the FOX Broadcasting Company’s 27 broadcast licenses. CREW disingenuously cites a phone hacking scandal in Britain involving FOX’s parent company, but not FOX itself. Not content to harass FOX using only one branch of government, CREW and its allies are also demanding Congressional hearings on revocation of the FOX licenses.
Organizations on the Left are also turning to the judicial branch to harass their perceived enemies with frivolous “lawfare” suits, saddling their opponents with expensive, time-consuming litigation. Witness the federal lawsuit recently filed on behalf of homosexual activists in Uganda. It charges the defendant, a pro-family writer and pastor, with a “crime against humanity.”
The Left’s eager self-righteousness means that laws against harassment and even violence are no obstacle to suppressing political expression deemed unacceptable. After opponents of a California ballot initiative prohibiting gay marriage publicized the addresses of the initiative’s supporters, many supporters suffered property damage or received threats of violence or death, including envelopes containing a white powdery substance. It’s no wonder so many on the Left, under the cover of campaign finance reform, are anxious to extend federal donor disclosure requirements to non-profit social welfare groups that express an opinion at election time.
Fortunately, the First Amendment stands in the way of many of the campaign finance regulations pushed by progressives. But that may not stop the White House, which McConnell describes as “very queasy about the First Amendment.” “[David] Axelrod has said one of the things the president wants to do after he gets reelected is amend the First Amendment for the first time in history – an act of genuine radicalism,” says McConnell. This is what Andrew Breitbart warned us about in February when he told a CPAC audience, “Barack Obama is a radical. We shouldn’t be afraid to say that.”
I asked Sen. McConnell how those on the President’s enemies list can fight back against harassment by the IRS and other arms of the Administration. Tea Party groups “don’t have much money,” he cautioned. “They’re up against the State here … They’re confronted with a [Hobbesian] choice between compliance and getting hung, or not complying and getting subjected to [legal] costs that they can’t afford.”
A better answer, McConnell suggests, is the ballot box: “These people [in the Obama Administration] are scary and they need to be stopped. The best way to do that is on the first Tuesday in November this year.”
Can we count on a Republican president and Congress to defend free speech? Sen. McConnell concedes that “one of the great disappointments I’ve had on this issue is to have to witness a Republican president sign McCain-Feingold, a bill [regulating political expression] that passed through a Republican house and a Republican senate.” However, McConnell reassured me that “I’ve discussed this issue with Governor Romney and with my colleagues in the Senate and with the Speaker. I don’t think you’ll see any more legislation like [that] coming out of a new conservative Congress and president.”
In other words, the election this fall presents a clear choice for those for and against unfettered political expression.
Curt Levey is a constitutional law attorney and President of the Committee for Justice in Washington, DC, which has been reporting on the Left’s war on free speech and its hypocrisy on campaign finance reform. He can be reached at @Curt_Levey on Twitter.