July 6th, 2022


The left's hate affair with free speech

Jay Ambrose

By Jay Ambrose

Published Dec. 13, 2016

The left's hate affair with free speech

Burn an American flag and then go to jail or lose your citizenship, says Donald Trump, who is trying his zany best to outdo the left in its war against free speech. He may have won the moment's battle but has a lot of catching up to do, and it's doubtful he will get there.

Consider the single worst policy position in the recently completed presidential campaign.

It came from Hillary Clinton. She said she wanted to rewrite the First Amendment to give politicians increased power to regulate political speech. The issue behind her oppressive solution was the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. A nonprofit outfit had wanted to show a film critical of Clinton. Campaign laws said nothing doing. Under questioning during a hearing, the government admitted the law would also allow banning of books under the same circumstances.

That's authoritarian stuff, and the court said corporations could spend what they like to get political messages out. Prime arguments against the ruling were that these big spenders could drown out other voices and that money was not speech. First off, we know from research that candidates who have the most money spent on their behalf are no more likely to win than those spending less.

In the campaign just past, this truth was demonstrated about as pointedly as possible. Jeb Bush vastly outspent other candidates in the 17-person Republican primary and still got vastly outvoted. At one point, Green Party candidate Jill Stein was outspending Trump on TV ads, and Clinton outspent him something like three to one.

Critics say money is not speech. No, but it is the means of speech. It can be crucial to speech. If you do not believe that, do you also think you could have a free press if there were laws outlawing advertising or other revenue sources?

As for rewriting the First Amendment to enable the outlawing of such corporate speech, it would inevitably increase the power of politicians all over the map to shut people up, no matter how precise the act's language. Even as the First Amendment is now written, the politicians behave half the time as if it is not there, as in global warming alarmists planning to use a law meant to imprison gangsters to zip the lips of people seeing no reason to subscribe verbally to their panic.

If you want something that is not strictly speaking speech, no matter what the Supreme Court has said, it is burning the flag. It is a mode of symbolic expression, in the same sense as it would be to raise a middle finger to a professor or a president. We do not allow certain words to be used on public airwaves. Flag-burning is worse than any of those words.

I myself have total contempt for flag-burners, although I would keep the practice legal because I believe the best response is societal castigation for behavior that is ugly and dumb but not directly harmful to others. Rule of law does not mean rule of everything by law unless totalitarianism is your ambition.

Jail or loss of citizenship? That's absurd.

But here comes the left, as in the Obama administration's threatening reporters with jail if they do not report sources, spying on other reporters and setting a record in denied data under the Freedom of Information Act.

What about universities that don't let conservative speakers visit, disallow open exchange on issues except in certain places, prohibit the use of perfectly ordinary words and require professorial warnings if the subject of the day might entail offensive possibilities?

Among the bunches of crazy regulations around the country is one that outlawed Bible study in a home lacking a proper permit.

Well, we still have the First Amendment to help protect us from some of the worst when it is done by government, at least if it is not rewritten.

Jay Ambrose

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Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.