Politics & Policy

We’ll Take Free Speech, Thank You

Senate Democrats are on the precipice of voting to repeal the First Amendment.

That extraordinary fact is a result of the increasingly authoritarian efforts of Democrats, notably Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, to suppress criticism of themselves and the government, and to suffocate any political discourse that they cannot control.

The Supreme Court in recent years has twice struck down Democratic efforts to legally suppress inconvenient speech, citing the free-speech protections of the First Amendment in both cases. Senator Reid’s solution is to nullify the first item on the Bill of Rights.

The Democrats are not calling this a repeal of the First Amendment, though that is precisely what it is. Instead, they are describing the proposed constitutional amendment as a campaign-finance measure. But it would invest Congress with blanket authority to censor newspapers and television reports, ban books and films, and imprison people for expressing their opinions. So long as two criteria are met — the spending of money and intending to influence an election — the First Amendment would no longer apply.  

The Democrats, keenly appreciating the boobishness of their voters, present this as a measure to regulate “corporations,” but the amendment explicitly empowers Congress to regulate individuals as well. As for those corporations: The New York Times is a corporation; ABC News is part of a corporation; NPR is a corporation; Random House is a corporation; Gawker is a corporation; National Review is a corporation. Neither the First Amendment nor any substantive body of American jurisprudence distinguishes media corporations from other sorts of corporations, nor should it. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not restricted to journalists and newspaper publishers. The same First Amendment that protects Scott Pelley protects Noam Chomsky and you, in exactly the same way.

It is worth reiterating that for all of the apocalyptic talk about all-powerful corporations, the Citizens United decision was at its heart about the fact that the government sought to make it a crime to show a film critical of Hillary Clinton at a time when she was running for office. The First Amendment plainly does not allow this, and the Supreme Court said as much. A First Amendment that does not protect criticizing political figures is not a First Amendment at all.

The amendment that Democrats are putting forward is an attack on basic human rights, the Constitution, and democracy itself. If those who would criticize the government must first secure the government’s permission to do so, they are not free people.

Harry Reid and Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, the amendment’s author, should be ashamed of themselves. The First Amendment has been a bulwark of liberty for more than two centuries, since long before either of the states that these vandals represent was even in the Union. Given a choice between free speech — in all its messy, uncomfortable, and unpredictable glory — and Harry Reid as national censor, we will take free speech. 

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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