The First Amendment Under Assault

Sen. Mitch McConnell explains how conservative speech is being silenced.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 4, 2013, following a Republican strategy session. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. is at left.

In case anyone hasn't noticed, the First Amendment is under assault, and from many different quarters. President Barack Obama's Department of Justice is threatening to indict reporters – or at least label them as unindicted co-conspirators – who are covering stories they would just as soon no one knew about. On college campuses, left-wing activists routinely shout down conservative speakers so that no one can hear what they have to say. The Internal Revenue Service is auditing people over their political and religious beliefs and the United States Supreme Court – irony of ironies – has instituted new rules banning political demonstrations on court grounds.

It is becoming increasingly clear that in Barack Obama's America – and remember his promises to change things during the 2008 presidential campaign – we can no longer depend on the courts and the ruling political class to protect our rights to free speech, assembly, worship or to engage in civic activity in general.

One who has been and remains a stalwart in defense of the First Amendment, however, is Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose speech Friday at the American Enterprise institute was an important clarion call to the citizenry, a forewarning that their ability to express their rights as they understand them are in jeopardy.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

"Our ability to freely engage in civic life and to organize in defense of our beliefs is still under coordinated assault from groups on the left," McConnell said, "that don't like the idea of anyone criticizing their aims, and from a White House that appears determined to shut up anybody who challenges it."

He's right. Disagreement has given way to attempts at disarmament, efforts to deprive conservatives of their right to think and speak freely in all sorts of venues. In a world in which the tactics of the community organizer are ascendant, the one who shouts the loudest for the longest wins no matter the intellectual merit of the argument they are making.

Media Matters for America and other groups on the hard left are trying to push Fox News off the airwaves and make it inaccessible in public accommodations. Conservative commentators and authors are shouted down and have pies thrown at them when they try to speak to college students. Radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh are subjected to sustained boycotts against their advertisers, and in Hollywood conservatives are blackballed from movie sets, both in front of and behind the cameras. The left, as many have documented, including former CBS reporter Bernie Goldberg and author and playwright David Mamet, has concluded that it cannot compete on equal footing in the marketplace of free ideas, so it must change the algorithm.

The bugging is not just limited to news organizations but to news personalities. In his remarks, McConnell talked of a "well-documented effort by a number of left-wing groups" to "harass and intimidate conservatives with the goal of scaring them off the political playing field and off the airwaves." One memo he described spoke of tactics being turned into a science, with groups planning to "conduct opposition research into the lives of on-air news personalities and other key decision makers at Fox News, and to coordinate with 100 or so partner groups to pressure the network's advertisers and shareholders, get this, 'by the threat of actual boycotts, rallies, demonstrations, shame, embarrassment and other tactics on a variety of issues important to the progressive agenda.'"

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

McConnell then boldly declared that "the attacks on speech that we've seen over the past several years" are extensive, extending "throughout the federal government, to places like the [Federal Election Commission], [the Federal Communications Commission], [the Department of Health and Human Services], [the Securities and Exchange Commission], and as all Americans now know – even to the IRS. These assaults have often been aided and abetted by the administration's allies in Congress. And they're as virulent as ever."

"The good news," he said, is that "people are waking up to a pattern here. They're connecting the dots. And they're rightly troubled." And, taking a counterpoint to the administration's heated attacks on the decision in the Citizens United case, McConnell observed that the Supreme Court's ruling was actually rather unremarkable: "All it really said was that, under the First Amendment, every corporation in America should be free to participate in the political process, not just the ones that own newspapers and TV stations. In other words, there shouldn't be a carve-out when it comes to political speech for folks who own media companies. It was a good and fair decision aimed at leveling the playing field."

The Senate Republican leader saved his most pointed comments, however, for the so-called Disclose Act – a White House-backed legislative proposal that is little more than an effort to force candidates and organizations, under penalty of law, to self-report on their political activities and contributors so that their supporters may be subjected to Saul Alinksy tactics.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the IRS Scandal.]

"As a longtime political observer and First Amendment hawk, I knew exactly what the Democrats were up to with their complaints about this decision. I've seen what the loudest proponents of disclosure have intended in the past, and it's not good government," McConnell said. "This is precisely why the FEC has protected the donor lists of the Socialist Worker's Party since 1979. It's also why the Supreme Court told the State of Alabama that it couldn't force the NAACP to disclose the names and addresses of its members back in the 1950s. The President could claim, as he did six months after wagging his finger at the Supreme Court, that 'the only people who don't want to disclose the truth are people with something to hide.' But the truth is, there's a very good and very legitimate reason the courts have protected folks from forced disclosure – because it knows that doing so subjects them to harassment."

The Disclose Act, McConnell said, "wasn't about cleaning up politics: It was about finding a blunt political weapon designed to be used against one group and one group only: conservatives." Again he's right, as Frank Vander Sloot and other Romney donors, as the National Organization for Marriage, as Charles and David Koch, as Catherine Englebrecht and her group "True the Vote," as well as many others can all attest.

McConnell ended his remarks with a plea to "call out these attacks on the First Amendment when you see them, regardless of the target." Again, he's right. The bullies and the bigots should not be allowed to get away with lies and shameful tactics designed to silence conservatives. They need to be called to account using the standards they themselves set during the 1950s and 1960s, when civil liberties were a burgeoning political issue. They must be so again, because those who understand their arguments will not stand up to scrutiny are attempting to win the debate by making sure there is no debate at all.

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