Politics & Policy

Democrats’ Push to Criminalize Dissent

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Harry Reid wants to gut the only thing stopping federal authorities from suffocating free speech.

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Dissent is the lowest form of crime. If you are a drone in the hive of the Left, it is possible — easy, in fact — to believe both of those things at the same time.

Free speech just won an important victory in a federal courtroom, though it is shameful that the case ever even had to go to court. Ohio had enacted a plainly unconstitutional law that empowered a government panel to determine whether criticisms offered in political advertisements were sufficiently true to be permitted in the public discourse. Those who have followed the IRS scandal, the Travis County, Texas, prosecutorial scandals, or Harry Reid’s recent effort to repeal the First Amendment will not be surprised that this measure was used as a political weapon against a conservative group, in this case the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List. SBA List criticized a Democratic House member for having voted for the so-called Affordable Care Act (ACA), noting that the law will implicate American taxpayers in the funding of abortions, an entanglement previously minimized through measures such as the Hyde Amendment. Despite the fact that the ACA regime would, among other things, permit federal subsidies for abortion-funding insurance plans, the Ohio Inquisition ruled the ad impermissible, and banned it.

So much for free speech.

Fortunately, an Obama appointee whose ability to read the letter of the law had not been utterly drummed out of him ruled that the Ohio Inquisition obviously violated longstanding free-speech protections, the First Amendment notable among them. Last week, a similar case in Minnesota came to a similar conclusion.

Which is why Harry Reid wants to repeal the First Amendment.

Democrats pushing the measure to repeal free speech pretend that it is a campaign-finance measure, but the only criteria it establishes for Congress to ban an advertisement — or a book, or a film, or a television show, or a magazine — is that money is expended in an attempt to influence a political outcome. Under those rules, the Ohio Inquisition’s successful move to ban billboards critical of an embattled Democratic congressman would have been totally acceptable under the provisions of a gutted First Amendment.

The Ohio Inquisition, and the Minnesota Inquisition, and Harry Reid’s war on the First Amendment are hardly isolated episodes. Consider that the same Texas prosecutor that has indicted Governor Rick Perry on two felony counts for the so-called crime of exercising his constitutional authority to veto a bill — a bill providing funds to that prosecutor’s office — is now preparing to indict University of Texas regent and whistleblower Wallace Hall, on charges of . . . hmm.

The charges against Mr. Hall are odd even by the standards of Rosemary Lehmberg, the vodka-pickled Texas prosecutor whose videotaped tirade after a DUI arrest — she threatened to have sheriff’s deputies jailed if she was not given special treatment — led to Governor Perry’s veto of funds for her office, on the theory that he could not in good conscience sign off on funding for an agency under such non-credible leadership. Mr. Hall is accused of leaking private information regarding academic records; short of that, prosecutors want to charge Mr. Hall with the crime of leading people to “speculate” about certain information protected by privacy rules. For the record, I should note that, though I never have spoken to the man, the party to whom Mr. Hall is accused of leaking information and whose speculation he is accused of encouraging is me.

The word “speculation” has two meanings, and the Texas law in question refers, without question, to the financial meaning of the word, i.e. it is a crime for a public official to encourage a third party to engage in profitable land speculation based upon insider information known only to government functionaries. It does not refer to a journalist’s speculation about whether Texas Representative Jim Pitts, the chairman of the state house ways and means committee, would be so sand-poundingly stupid as to be the face of the effort to impeach Wallace Hall after having leaned on the University of Texas law school to admit his grossly underqualified son, which is of course precisely what had happened.

The same Texas prosecutor behind the indictments of Governor Perry and Mr. Hall was also behind the indictments of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Representative Tom DeLay, both of which ultimately were laughed out of court. The point of these indictments is not to obtain convictions; the prosecutor did not even present a case against Senator Hutchison when the matter came to trial. And the point of the Ohio Inquisition was never to achieve a legal victory against the Susan B. Anthony List: The point was to bully the group, and the billboard company, into remaining silent and forgoing criticism of Democratic candidates. In that, the censors were successful: SBA List won in court, but those billboards never went up.

Likewise, the point of indicting Governor Perry and Mr. Hall is not to send either man to jail, but to harass them, to bully them, to bankrupt them if possible, and to keep them from functioning as effective critics of entrenched Democratic political interests.

The only thing stopping federal authorities from suffocating free speech — not only by independent groups such as the SBA List, but by individuals, trade groups, National Review, and the New York Times — is the First Amendment.

And Harry Reid wants to gut it. Figure out why that is and you’ll know everything you need to know about the Democratic party, which with each passing day functions less and less like a political party and more like a crime syndicate.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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