John Leo
The campaign reform bill may have been "sweeping," as the media told us, but one of the things being swept away was 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." Reformers did, in fact, dismiss the threat to free speech as a trivial annoyance or a myth. This 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 constitutency 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" needed to be shielded from harmful speech, or else they would never feel comfortable enough to rise in society.

This emphasis on comfort, sensitivity and the awful danger of words arose on the campuses and spread into the general culture. It hardened 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.

These attitudes dominate the left. It's no secret, for example, that the American Civil Liberties Union's attention to free speech is not what it once was. It is so committed to "diversity," abortion rights and gay rights that when one of these causes comes into conflict with free speech, it is free speech that is likely to suffer. One sign of the change is that law professor Mari Matsuda, author of "Words That Wound" and one of the fiercest pro-censorship voices in the academic world, is now on the ACLU's national board.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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