Growing Assault on Free Speech
In the hyper-ventilating world of modern journalism, describing almost every issue as a “crisis” has lost its impact. That’s troubling, because there are several challenges facing the United States that truly are existential threats. Arguably, the most serious is the rapidly declining support for free speech.
Several recent reports and articles illustrate the dramatic drop in devotion to the First Amendment, which, more than any other characteristic, has been the defining characteristic of American law, culture and government.
The seriousness of the threat can be seen in the multiple avenues of attack those favoring limiting freedom of speech have taken. They include introduced legislation on the federal and state level;
The use of violence or the threat thereof; during the Obama Administration, the use of federal agencies to limit the ability of political opponents to organize; the actions of social media powerhouses to downplay or censor some perspectives; and attempts to indoctrinate students to reject free speech.
It is disturbing that some in the media who, because of their profession, should be among the most ardent supporters of free speech, are among those favoring its limitation. Richard L. Hasen, writing in the Los Angeles Times stated that “…some shifts in 1st Amendment doctrine seem desirable to assist citizens in ascertaining the truth.”
“what happens on campuses often foreshadows broader societal trends…A surprisingly large fraction of students believe it is acceptable to act—including resorting to violence—to shut down expression they consider offensive…Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses. In fact, despite protestations to the contrary (often with statements like “we fully support the First Amendment, but…), freedom of expression is clearly not, in practice, available on many campuses, including many public campuses that have First Amendment obligations… among many current college students there is a significant divergence between the actual and perceived scope of First Amendment freedoms. More specifically, with respect to the questions explored above, many students have an overly narrow view of the extent of freedom of expression… a surprisingly large fraction of students believe it is acceptable to act—including resorting to violence—to shut down expression they consider offensive. And a majority of students appear to want an environment that shields them from being exposed to views they might find offensive.”
The problem extends beyond biased journalists and the leftist, pro-censorship environment on college campuses. During the Obama Administration, federal attacks on organizations that spoke in opposition to President Obama’s policies occurred, and the perpetrators have not been subjected to punishment. Robert Wood, writing in Forbes, reported:
“[IRS official] Lois Lerner and Justice Department officials met in 2010 about going after conservative organizations…In August 2010, the IRS distributed a ‘be on the lookout’ list for Tea Party organizations… On May 7, 2014, the House of Representatives held Ms. Lerner in contempt of Congress…”
During her tenure in office during the Obama Administration, Attorney General Loretta Lynch seriously considered criminally prosecuting those who disagreed with the former President’s views on global warming. A number of state attorneys general engaged in legal harassment of think tanks that question Obama’s environmental policies.
The problem reaches beyond agency actions. Senator Charles Schumer, (D-NY) who is the U.S. Senate’s minority leader, proposed a measure that would limit free speech protections as they pertain to campaign donations. The proposed legislation, thankfully defeated, gained 43 Senate supporters—all Democrats. At a Senate Rules Committee Schumer stated:
“The First Amendment is sacred, but the First Amendment is not absolute. By making it absolute, you make it less sacred to most Americans.”
A popular avenue for attacking free speech is the drive to impose ever increasing campaign regulations. Bradley Smith, in a National Affairs article wrote:
“To anyone following the evolution of the campaign-finance reform movement, it should have been obvious that book-banning was a straightforward implication of the McCain-Feingold law (and the long line of [campaign finance] statutes and cases that preceded it). The century-old effort to constrict the ways our elections are funded has, from the outset, put itself at odds with our constitutional tradition. It seeks to undermine not only the protections of political expression in the First Amendment, but also the limits on government in the Constitution itself.”
Attacks on free speech can also be seen on the state level. In an attempt to muzzle opposing viewpoints, New York’s elected officials are continuously seeking means to suppress free speech. The latest scandalous move comes from Assemblyman David Weprin, who represents part of NYC in the state legislature. He has introduced legislation (A5323) that is such a broad attack against the First Amendment that it has attracted national attention, garnering substantial criticism. This is how the Washington Post’s Eugene Volokh describes the measure:
“…under this bill, newspapers, scholarly works, copies of books on Google Books and Amazon, online encyclopedias (Wikipedia and others) — all would have to be censored whenever a judge and jury found (or the author expected them to find) that the speech was ‘no longer material to current public debate or discourse’…And of course the bill contains no exception even for material of genuine historical interest; after all, such speech would have to be removed if it was ‘no longer material to current public debate.’ Nor is there an exception for autobiographic material, whether in a book, on a blog or anywhere else. Nor is there an exception for political figures, prominent businesspeople and others. But the deeper problem with the bill is simply that it aims to censor what people say, under a broad, vague test based on what the government thinks the public should or shouldn’t be discussing. It is clearly unconstitutional under current First Amendment law.”
A failure to comply with a request to remove material from articles, search engines or other places would make the author liable for, at a minimum, a penalty of $250 per day plus attorney fees.
A recently released CATO study on the “The State of Free Speech and Tolerance in America” reveals the impact all of these attacks have had on the citizenry.
- “Nearly three-fourths (71%) of Americans believe that political correctness has done more to silence important discussions our society needs to have… The consequences are personal-58% of Americans believe the political climate today prevents them from saying things they believe…”
- “58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts…”
- “Two-thirds (66%) of Americans say colleges and universities aren’t doing enough to teach young Americans today about the value of free speech. When asked which is more important, 65% say colleges should “expose students to all types of viewpoints, even if they are offensive or biased against certain groups.” About a third (34%) say colleges should “prohibit offensive speech that is biased against certain groups.” But Americans are conflicted. Despite their desire for viewpoint diversity, a slim majority (53%) also agree that “colleges have an obligation to protect students from offensive speech and ideas that could create a difficult learning environment.” This share rises to 66% among Democrats, but 57% of Republicans disagree…”
- “More than three-fourths (76%) of Americans say that recent campus protests and cancellations of controversial speakers are part of a “broader pattern” of how college students deal with offensive ideas… A majority (58%) say colleges should cancel controversial speakers if administrators believe the students will stage a violent protest otherwise. Democrats and Republicans again disagree: Democrats say universities should cancel the speaker (74%) and Republicans say they should not cancel the speaker (54%) if the students threaten violence…”
- “A slim majority (51%) of current college students and graduate students believe a person doesn’t deserve the right of free speech if they don’t respect other people… Two-thirds of Americans (66%) say colleges and universities aren’t doing enough today to teach young Americans about the value of free speech. This is a view shared by 51% of current college and graduate students, while 46% think colleges are doing enough…”
- “A little more than a quarter (29%) [of all those surveyed] think government should have the authority to stifle stories authorities say are inaccurate or biased.”
Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy & Government (website usagovpolicy.com). He is the co-host of the syndicated radio program, Vernuccio/Novak Report, and is also a contributor to Fox News. His columns appear in many newspapers. After graduating Hofstra Law School, he was a legislative editor for a major publishing company, then served in both Republican and Democrat Administrations. Following the 9/11 attack, he was appointed to run the hard-hit Manhattan branch of the New York State Workers Compensation Board.