Liberals Rethink Free Speech

Liberals Rethink Free Speech

By Rich Lowry - October 4, 2008

Barack Obama has already brought change. He's ended the "chilling effect."

Any restrictions on speech -- real or imagined -- were once inevitably deemed to have a "chilling effect" on people who would otherwise exercise their First Amendment rights if they weren't so frightened by the possibility of running afoul of the law. Claims of a "chilling effect" were the most reliable weapon in the American Civil Liberties Union's absolutist campaign against, say, even the most common-sensical laws against obscenity.

But the politics of free speech has been subtly shifting. Opponents of the ACLU on the Right are increasingly worried about overreaching rules against "hate speech" defining legitimate opinions as out of bounds. Meanwhile, the same people who forever decry the country's imminent descent into the dark night of fascism are now comfortable regulating political speech in federal law and banning speech on college campuses. The Left has learned to like some chill with its free speech.

Enter the Obama campaign, which reflects the new ethos. It twice issued "Obama Action Wire" alerts for activists to call a Chicago radio station and try to shut down appearances by two Obama critics, writers Stanley Kurtz and David Freddoso. No "chilling effect" here. CNN and the Chicago Tribune reported on the effort to silence Obama's detractors, but mostly by way of noting the Obama camp's tech-savvy mustering of its supporters.

When an outside group ran TV ads pointing out links between Obama and the former Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers, the Obama campaign asked the Bush Justice Department -- yes, that Bush Justice Department, the fount of all evil -- to open a criminal investigation.

The Obama campaign's effort dovetails with the work of an outfit called Accountable America, run by a former operative. It is devoted to threatening conservative donors with legal action and exposure of any embarrassing details of their private lives if they give money to groups running ads against Obama. The New York Times account says the group hopes to create "a chilling effect," but the phrase is used non-pejoratively.

Liberal editorial boards have apparently lost their former zest for the First Amendment. Consider this approving sentence from a New York Times editorial: "The wholesale descent into Swift Boat campaigning has been blocked -- for now -- by a federal judge in Virginia." It was written about a judge denying an injunction against the Federal Election Commission sought by a pro-life group running radio ads attacking Obama. The group thinks the First Amendment protects political speech; unfortunately, the courts disagree.

But the Times goes beyond mere legalities. It asserts with no evidence that the group's advertising is "lies," then urges the FEC to "be vigilant for what will inevitably be fresh attempts to mislead voters with fresh lies." Here's a newspaper charging a governmental agency with policing and shutting down campaign ads it doesn't like.

It's all just a taste of what's to come if Obama wins and Democrats have even bigger majorities in Congress, emboldening them to try to crush their antagonists once and for all. "Hate is not a family value" was a popular bumper sticker on the left during the 1990s. Now, the left has embraced hate as, if not a family value, the organizing spirit of its long assault on George W. Bush, and anyone else in the way, from Joe Lieberman to Sarah Palin.

America's partisan politics has always featured its share of rancorous abuse, but there's something rancid at the heart of the new, blog-driven left that believes its bullying childishness has led the way out of the wilderness. This spirit will inevitably seep into an Obama administration. Whatever Obama's professions of his commitment to cross-partisan understanding, he's never confronted the left of his own party and has always been willing to engage in hardball when it suits his purposes.

Little Keith Olbermanns will surely be burrowed throughout his executive branch, eager to chill the speech of the "worst people in the world."

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.

© 2008 by King Features Syndicate

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