Over the past couple of years, I and others have grown increasingly concerned by the Obama Administration’s repeated attempts to silence its critics through federal agencies like the IRS, the SEC and HHS, and even through an executive order aimed at denying contracts to its political opponents.
But when the President’s top political advisor let slip last week that, if reelected, the President may attempt to amend the First Amendment, I knew it was high time to speak up loudly and clearly against these tactics, and to call on all Americans to oppose them at all costs.
In a speech last Friday at the American Enterprise Institute, I said:
One of the things that has always distinguished Americans as a people is the eagerness with which they’ve organized around issues and causes they believe in. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it more than a century and a half ago, ‘In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America.’ Yet today, this principle faces a grave external threat. The danger comes from a political movement that’s uncomfortable with the idea of groups it doesn’t like speaking freely, and from an administration that has shown an alarming willingness itself to use the powers of government to silence these groups. This dangerous alliance threatens the character of America. And that’s why it is critically important for all conservatives — and indeed all Americans — to stand up and unite in defense of the freedom to organize around the causes we believe in, and against any effort that would constrain our ability to do so.
Citing the 1958 case NAACP v. Alabama, as well as the FEC’s longstanding exemption of the Socialist Workers Party from existing disclosure requirements, I made the constitutional case against government-compelled select disclosure of donors.
Transparency always sounds good in theory, I argued, but government-compelled selective disclosure isn’t so much a tool of good government as it is a blunt political weapon, which is precisely what the proponents of the so-called DISCLOSE Act intend to use it as.
The goal is to identify and then vilify those who support right-leaning causes, thus either scaring them off the playing field or discouraging others from stepping onto it in the first place.
I also made the argument that for most proponents of constraining political speech, the Holy Grail is taxpayer funded elections. The reason: if government can control how we get here, they can drive all private interests to the sidelines. Lawmakers would then become less and less responsive to their constituents and far more inclined to favor public solutions to the nation’s problems. Behind all these efforts is a fundamental mistrust of the private sector itself.
Ironically, just hours after delivering this message I started taking a good bit of incoming myself. Ignoring a three-decade fight I’ve waged in defense of the First Amendment, in which I’ve repeatedly stood up for the right to free speech even when it hurt me politically to do so, folks like Robert Reich and Fred Wertheimer, and outlets like Daily Kos started coming after me too.
Rather than dig deeper into a sitting president’s growing record of contempt for the First Amendment, they dug up a 12-year old quote of mine that they said undercut my argument. At AEI, I told the audience they needed to unite in defense of the Constitution, but that they also needed to get ready for the attacks that would follow.
Now they don’t just have to take my word for it.
For blowing the whistle on the administration’s abuses last Friday, I’ve since been called Nixonian, hypocritical, bonkers, dishonest, whacko, a flip-flopper, a defier of logic, and insincere throughout my many years of defending the Constitutional right to free speech, in season and out of season.
The goal of all these attacks is the same as the goals of those who’ve intensified their attacks on conservative donors in recent months, and who are looking for even more targets through the DISCLOSE Act: to scare us into silence. The goal was to shut me up, just as they’ve tried to shut up others who’ve supported causes on the right or who have called out the administration and its allies for trying to harass and intimidate them into submission.
My message to them is simple: it won’t work.
The First Amendment is the right that allows all of us — on the right and the left — to have a place in the national debate. Defending it is something about which there can be no compromise, and no retreat. These attacks should be worn like a badge of honor, and they are the clearest proof yet that we’re onto something.