Politics & Policy

Senate Democrats Seek to Criminalize First Amendment–Protected Speech


Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D., John Kerry’s yacht) is leading a marathon of denunciations in the Senate targeting a bunch of groups and institutions that don’t really have anything to do with one another: tobacco companies, chemical producers, think tanks, charitable trusts, oil companies, and, of course, Charles and David Koch. Nine-tenths of that is window-dressing. The targets are the oil companies and their money, and the Koch brothers and their activism.

Senator Whitehouse and the others are lambasting certain oil companies, especially Exxon, and the various activist groups associated (however distantly) with the Koch brothers for having “funded think tanks,” for having “paid public-relations firms,” and having “developed and executed a massive campaign” to spread their own views about global warming and policy questions related to energy and climate change. And they are demanding that their targets “cooperate with active or future investigations” into their spread of “climate denial.” In other words, Senate Democrats are once again using the Capitol as a political forum in which to denounce and threaten private citizens and organizations who dare to speak in the public square.

The relevant context here is that a group of Democratic attorneys general, supported by a network of other Democratic elected officials, donors, and activists, is attempting to criminalize the political activism that Senator Whitehouse is here denouncing. Exxon is the target of an open-ended investigation by the Democratic attorney general of New York, while think tanks and activist groups have been subpoenaed and investigated by the Democratic attorneys general of the U.S. Virgin Islands and California.

Not long ago, it was, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism!” Now, it’s, “How dare you engage in politics without our permission!”

This is a straightforward First Amendment issue: There are activists who think that the scientific consensus on climate change is wrong, misguided, or exaggerated, and those who believe that the climate-change policies favored by Democrats such as Senator Whitehouse are poor choices irrespective of how one evaluates the scientific data. These critics may be wrong, and they may even be failing to give the academic research its due — and, so what? If they are wrong, it isn’t a crime to be wrong. A political disagreement is not a tort.

This is a straightforward First Amendment issue.

The Democrats are, as we keep pointing out, engaged in a nakedly authoritarian assault on free speech, political debate, and dissent. Senator Harry Reid not long ago led his Senate allies in a unanimous vote to repeal the First Amendment so that elected officials in Washington can set the terms under which private citizens are allowed to criticize them. It is worth keeping in mind that the Citizens United decision was a question of whether a group of private citizens could be punished for showing a film critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton (then, as now, a presidential candidate) without government permission. The Supreme Court says that the First Amendment protects precisely that kind of free speech; Democrats in the Senate say to Hell with the First Amendment.

The Democrats here are using a two-front approach: Whitehouse and his colleagues keep up the public pressure in the Senate (with the implicit threat that Democrats may soon control it once again) while their colleagues in the states (and possibly in the Justice Department, which is considering an investigation of its own) threaten their political opponents with endless, ruinously expensive investigation, fines, and possibly even criminal charges. This is not limited to climate change, either: Democrats in Texas successfully saw Rick Perry indicted for vetoing a bill, i.e., for performing his ordinary gubernatorial functions.

There is plenty of room for disagreement on energy policy, climate change, carbon taxes, renewable fuels, and the like. There isn’t any room for disagreement about whether disagreement should be criminalized. If Exxon can be hauled into court for having unpopular opinions about climate change, and if the governor of Texas can be indicted as a felon for an unpopular political action, where do you imagine that leaves an ordinary citizen? This is a deplorable campaign against the very basis of democratic discourse, and Americans should not fail to be clear-eyed and clear-headed about exactly what is going on — and where it will lead.

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

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