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Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 2002 / 7 Adar, 5762

John Leo

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A gaggle of gag orders -- THE House version of the campaign reform bill may be "sweeping," as the media tell us, but one thing that would be swept away is the right of independent groups to take to the airwaves with ads lobbying for their causes around election time. Under the Shays-Meehan bill, it would be a federal crime for an association of citizens to broadcast ads criticizing, praising, or even mentioning by name any congressional candidate within 60 days of a general election or within 30 days of a primary. Even an ad saying "Shays-Meehan is a mistake" would be a crime in the districts of Congressmen Shays and Meehan.

The bill is "a frontal attack on the rights of ordinary citizens to band together to express their views," wrote Stuart Taylor Jr. of the National Journal, yet the reformers "treat this blackout on pre-election speech as a mere awkward detail." Their oblivious attitude owes a lot to the disregard for free expression that now marks our culture. The truth is that free speech no longer has a strong core constituency in America. What passes for a core constituency is now mostly on the right. The left, which once fiercely fought for free speech, essentially abandoned that role when it decided that "historically underrepresented groups" should be shielded from harmful speech, or else they would never feel comfortable enough to rise in society. This posture arose on the campuses and spread into the general culture, hardening into the doctrines of "hostile environment" and "hate speech," both of which now justify violations of free speech that would have sent liberals of the 1950s or 1960s into shock.

Left behind. It's no secret, for example, that the American Civil Liberties Union's attention to free speech is not what it once was. The ACLU is so committed to "diversity," abortion rights, and gay rights that when any conflict arises with free speech, it is free speech that is likely to suffer. One sign of the change: Law Prof. Mari Matsuda, author of Words That Wound and one of the fiercest pro-censorship voices in the academic world, is now on the group's national advisory council.

The low priority of free speech is on regular display in the relentless campaign to curb and punish antiabortion demonstrators. The left tolerates huge buffer zones, plus limits on protest signs and leafleting, that it would never approve if the protesters were striking union members or animal-rights activists. Thinking up new ways to gag demonstrators–not people who block clinic entrances, just ordinary protesters–is a minor industry here in New York. New York City Council bill 645-A would make it illegal for protesters near a clinic to hand an antiabortion leaflet to anyone who doesn't want one. The bill would also ban oral protest and protest signs within a radius of 50 feet of any abortion clinic. Hello, ACLU? Anyone in there still interested in free speech?

Getting do-good groups interested in free speech isn't easy. In 1999, after the American Society of Newspaper Editors defended the First Amendment right to burn the American flag, I sent the group a letter saying, that's nice, now send me your resolution condemning all the thefts and burnings of college newspapers. The reply was full of hemming and hawing about why it was inappropriate to take such a stand. The real reason, I think, is that most of the papers being stolen were conservative ones, and ASNE is a PC-drenched group that doesn't care much about the free-speech rights of student editors it disagrees with.

Amid the campus turmoil that followed the terrorism of September 11, something unusual occurred: censorship of a few speakers on the left. Janis Besler Heaphy, for example, publisher of the Sacramento Bee, wanted to deliver a commencement speech at California State University-Sacramento about threats to civil liberties in the federal response to terrorism. But yahoos shouted her down. Many elite newspapers then announced that we can't have censorship on campus, provoking the obvious question: Where have they been for the past 20 years of egregious speech codes, stolen newspapers, disinvited speakers, defunded organizations, and other anti-free-speech tactics so common on the campuses?

I also noticed that Columbia University issued a ringing endorsement of free speech in October of last year. I was pleased to see such a radical change at Columbia, because the university worked overtime to prevent Dinesh D'Souza and me from speaking there in 1998. We wound up giving our talks just off campus, with protesters shouting things like "Ha, ha, you're outside" and carrying signs that said "Access denied–we win." Columbia was, of course, teaching its students to deal with dissent by suppressing it. Maybe the university has really reformed, but somehow I think there's room for doubt.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Incorrect Thoughts: Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.


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