Grant Bosse: Two flawed attacks on free speech
A pair of Democratic senators have launched dueling broadsides in the left’s ongoing assault on the First Amendment. One is a blatant attempt to use the power of government to coerce silence from the opposition, while the other is a mistaken attempt to protect the press from such coercion.
Dick Durbin is the senior senator for Illinois. He is the assistant majority leader for the Senate Democrats, which means he’s often tapped to recite that day’s talking points on the Senate floor. He has the cartoonish bluster of Foghorn Leghorn, minus the Southern accent. And he wants the federal government to get his political opponents to shut up.
Durbin has fired off letters to think-tanks around the country demanding to know what ties they have with the American Legislative Exchange Council, and their stance on Stand Your Ground Laws. We needn’t revisit the left-wing paranoia surrounding ALEC or the blatant misrepresentation of Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. Durbin certainly doesn’t care. He gets to capitalize on two myths that excite his base, and intimidate his fiercest critics.
Durbin chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. In that official capacity, he has sent letters to 300 companies and think tanks that he suspects of supporting ALEC, asking them for their stance on Stand Your Ground. He said their responses would be included in the record of the Senate subcommittee hearing he was planning to convene.
The Goldwater Institute rightly invoked attorney Joseph Welch’s response to Joe McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?” The Illinois Policy Institute responded “Request Denied,” in Russian. The Cato Institute called the letter part of the current administration’s trend “to menace those who do not share your political beliefs.”
Durbin’s ham-fisted tactics are so egregious that
they should draw bipartisan condemnation. But such disdain for the First Amendment has become a plank of the Democratic Party. New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen repeatedly pushed the IRS to investigate politically vocal nonprofits, with more than 90 percent of those investigations falling on conservative groups. Then-state Sen. Maggie Hassan led a similar witch hunt against anonymous political speech in Concord three years ago, citing the same ALEC-fueled fever dreams. She hoped to force disclosure of donors to nonprofits and have non-profits register with the state if they were going to engage in political activity.
These anti-American sentiments stem from the assumption that politicians deserve protection from their critics, and a chance to silence them. They should disgust any self-described liberal, in either the classic or current usage.
Durbin has joined California Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s push for a Journalist Shield law. I admire Feinstein’s passion and intellect as much as I abhor Durbin’s thuggery. Many smart people want to define the protections of a free press, and who qualifies for them. The need seems pressing as the Obama Administration names reporters as unindicted co-conspirators for printing leaked intelligence.
But Feinstein’s effort is misguided. Journalism is an activity, not a club. There is no license to practice journalism, and anyone who proposes such barriers has a fatally flawed view of our Constitution.
The internet has shattered conventional definitions of the press. Concord Sen. Sylvia Larsen tripped over the new paradigm in 2009 when she kicked me off the Senate floor for bringing in a flip cam. My press pass was eventually restored once I agreed to sit with the print reporters and not tape anyone.
House Speaker Bill O’Brien drew deserved abuse last year for blocking the Monitor from his press briefings. That was short-sighted, but not a First Amendment violation. Politicians are under no obligation to speak to any media outlet, but neither should they offer special legal status for a select class of favored reporters.
The powerful and the popular will always be heard, even without constitutional guarantees. Many of our fights over free speech have protected the least worthy among us, pornographers, neo-Nazis, and the Westboro Baptist Church. But in an age when we can self-publish 140 characters at a time, the theoretical line between free speech and free press is a distinction without a difference.
We should work to ensure that the rights to hold and share beliefs belong to everyone, and not just those our elected leaders decide to protect. And we should together shout down politicians who use the tax code, a Senate gavel, or the threat of reprisal to silence dissent. The only remedy for bad speech is more speech. Let’s make sure Dick Durbin hears it.
(Grant Bosse is editor of New Hampshire Watchdog, an independent news site dedicated to New Hampshire public policy, and a senior fellow at the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.)