Free speech has lost its constituency on left

John Leo

2/18/2002 12:00:00 AM - 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.

The low priority for free speech is on regular display in the relentless campaign to curb and punish anti-abortion 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. A recent New York City Council bill would make it illegal near a clinic to offer an anti-abortion 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.

Getting do-good groups interested in free speech isn't easy. 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 Sept. 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 Cal State-Sacramento about threats to civil liberties in the federal response to terrorism. But she was shouted down by yahoos. 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 papers, disinvited speakers, defunded organizations and other anti-free-speech tactics so common on campuses?

I also noticed that the student senate at Columbia University issued a ringing endorsement of free speech. 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.