It was 1946, and America was on the road to recovery. Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo had been vanquished, and Americans were congratulating themselves on protecting their nation and the values that made this country worth shedding the blood of what would come to be called our “greatest generation.”
As part of that year’s Independence Day observations, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Denver took a poll of Americans to gauge their understanding of, and belief in, the constitutional values making up the foundations of the republic. The results, as the media of the day reported, were both shocking and disappointing.
The poll found that roughly a third of respondents rejected the concept of free speech as symbolized by the First Amendment. When asked, “In peacetime, do you think people in this country should be allowed to say anything they want to in a public speech?” 32 percent of those responding simply answered, “No.” Things have not improved much since then, and, if what’s going on today in the U.S. Senate is any indicator, that may have been the golden age for believers in free speech and the First Amendment.
This morning, the Senate begins hearings on something its sponsors have in an Orwellian moment dubbed “A Constitutional Amendment to Restore Democracy to the American People.” The proposed amendment is the newest brainchild of American progressives dedicated to seizing exclusive ownership of the public square by shutting up those with whom they disagree. It would allow Congress to pass whatever restrictions of political speech it deems reasonable, the Constitution notwithstanding.
Liberal progressives decided in the wake of recent Supreme Court decisions that the First Amendment free-speech guarantees that their more purely liberal predecessors once championed have become a roadblock on the way to fundamentally changing the United States. It seems that too many Americans not only listen to their opponents’ arguments, but agree with them. Unable to win arguments on the merits, they have resorted to demonization and criminalization of the very speech on which a free republic depends.
They begin by suggesting that recent Supreme Court decisions are faulty, particularly those in the 2010 case involving Citizens United, which found that corporations, like individuals, have the right to speak freely. This decision has been denounced and derided by folks such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but it is, in fact, consistent with at least a couple of dozen previous Supreme Court cases. In that sense, it was an unremarkable and predictable decision in the face of governmental arguments that Congress could outlaw movies, books and anything else that might impact an election within a month or two or three of the opening of the polls. While stifling publications, producers, pamphleteers and bloggers who have incorporated, the proposed amendment would grant special rights to some corporations, such as those that own The New York Times, CBS and other major media properties.
The second case was more recently decided and scrapped the overall contribution limits imposed on individuals while leaving the limits on how much an individual could contribute to a given candidate or campaign in place. While this decision could actually weaken the so-called super PACs so despised by progressive reformers and strengthen the parties, it interferes with the progressive desire to deny or limit the free-speech rights of the wealthy people they don’t like.
Actually, progressives don’t want to limit the speech rights of all corporations or rich people. Thus, the amendment would exempt the traditional media. Mr. Reid enjoys differentiating the Koch brothers, who he considers evil, from the anti-Keystone pipeline billionaire Tom Steyer and fellow Nevadan Sheldon Adelson, who he thinks are doing God’s work and shouldn’t be condemned for wanting to spend millions on their politics.
Floyd Abrams, an old liberal and one of the nation’s foremost First Amendment experts, is scheduled to testify and will point out, among other things, that the expected explosion of corporate giving predicted by those opposed to the Citizens United decision hasn’t happened except in the minds of its opponents, that no previous attempt to actually amend the First Amendment has ever succeeded or been taken seriously, that the proposed amendment would gut the core guarantees the Founders correctly considered essential to the functioning of a free society, and that its sponsors, like many such past reformers, are more interested in protecting political incumbency than in free and competitive elections. Mr. Abrams is, of course, dead right.
It’s tempting to dismiss the proposed amendment and the hearings as simply goofy. After all, to get an amendment adopted, Mr. Reid and company would need the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress, and it would then have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states. That would seem to be impossible, even though 16 state legislatures have already endorsed the idea. But what’s troubling and important is that the proposal itself puts speech restrictions on the table that would have been laughed at just a decade ago, and that some 40 Democratic senators have signed on in the Senate as co-sponsors.
Last year, the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University took a poll that found 34 percent of the public claiming the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantees are “too extreme,” and only half of students polled by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in 2005 thought newspapers should be able to print anything without governmental approval. Hodding Carter III, who heads the foundation, observed at the time that the results were “dangerous” because “ignorance about the basis of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future.” He was right, too, but how much more dangerous is it when the ignorant include not only students, but 40 United States senators?
What all this says about the deterioration in our understanding of the importance of free speech since that 1946 poll — and the sorts of people who reject the concept entirely — is truly frightening.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.
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