I’m old enough to remember when American liberals cherished the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. They celebrated especially the freedom accorded those with unpopular beliefs and protested attempts to squelch the expression of differing opinions.
Today things are different. American liberals are not challenging the Supreme Court rulings extending First Amendment protection to nude dancers, flag burners and students wearing antiwar armbands. They are content to leave these as forms of protected free speech.
But political speech is a whole other thing. Currently, 43 Democratic senators are so-sponsoring the constitutional amendment introduced by New Mexico’s Sen. Tom Udall to amend the First Amendment so that it no longer protects political speech.
“To protect the integrity of the legislative and electoral processes,” the text reads, “Congress shall have power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents with respect to federal elections,” including limits on contributions to and spending by or against candidates. The same power is given to state governments.
Delphically, the amendment adds, “Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress the power to abridge the freedom of the press.” So the New York Times can keep commenting on elections. Maybe bloggers can, too. (Are they the press?)
But if you want to run an ad on TV or send out a mailing opposing a candidate’s stand on an issue, these 43 Democratic senators want to shut you down.
Too much conversation could muddy the waters, apparently. And note that spending against a candidate can be barred (incumbents hate well-financed challengers) and that “in-kind equivalents” – gas money to circulate petitions? shoe leather? -- can be limited.
Many Democrats have been hopping mad about the exercise of free political speech since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. That’s the case President Obama criticized in front of several justices in his 2011 State of the Union address.
Citizens United is a corporation that produced something called “Hillary: The Movie” and wanted to show it within 30 days of the 2008 Democratic primaries. The lower courts said this violated the 2002 McCain-Feingold limitations on “electioneering communications.” The Supreme Court said it was free speech, protected by the First Amendment.
Over the years, supporters of campaign finance regulation, not all of them Democrats, have argued that spending money is not speech. But it’s hard to think of any way of communicating your ideas to others, even over the Internet, without spending money.
A louder response to Citizens United is that it is preposterous to say that corporations have a right to free speech. Only individuals do. Which, I suppose, means that the New York Times could be restricted as long as it’s a corporation, but not if it were personally owned by Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr.
This is not the only example of liberals trying to squelch unwelcome speech. Read the Lois Lerner Internal Revenue Service emails that someone somehow didn’t manage to destroy, and you see a liberal self-righteously determined to silence opponents.
Similarly, the runaway Democratic prosecutors in Wisconsin, since slapped down by a state and a federal judge, sought to intimidate people who wanted to advocate policies supported by Gov. Scott Walker.
Where does this speech-squelching impulse come from? Perhaps a sense of victimization.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who lets few bills or amendments come to the Senate floor, has been orating for days against billionaires Charles and David Koch. Their offense is to advocate their ideas and encourage election of people who agree with them.
“The decisions by the Supreme Court have left the American people with a status quo in which one side’s billionaires are pitted against the other side’s billionaires,” Reid said the other day. “Except one side doesn’t have many billionaires.”
Nonsense. George Soros. Penny Pritzker. Tom Steyer, who has pledged $100 million to Keystone XL pipeline opponents, is meeting with top officials in the White House on Wednesday. There are dozens of other well-heeled Democrats.
Fifty years ago, Republicans had a big financial advantage, and few rich people backed liberals. That may account for the mindset of Reid (born 1939, first elected to public office 1968).
Not all liberals feel that way. Carl Levin (born 1934, first elected to public office 1968) is one of 12 Senate Democrats not co-sponsoring the Udall amendment. Perhaps he remembers, as I do, the good old days when liberals defended free speech.
• Michael Barone, senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.