The other day a leader of the Russian opposition to President Vladimir Putin was convicted of libel and fined 300,000 rubles, or $8,400. Sounds like routine suppression of political speech by Putin’s regime. Most of us would say it’s far fetched that anything like that could ever happen in America. But never say never.
This country is experiencing a hostility to free speech that ought to be worrying to Americans of all political persuasions. A case in point landed in the U.S. Supreme Court this week. It’s been called a case about a “right to lie” but would more accurately be described as an effort by government to censor politics.
Ohio can fine or even jail someone its election commission deems guilty of lying in a political campaign. Fifteen other states have similar laws.
At issue is a billboard advertisement that a group opposed to abortion, the Susan B. Anthony List, wanted to put up accusing an Ohio congressman running for re-election of supporting taxpayer-funded abortion. The ad never went up because the billboard company refused to do so after the Ohio Election Commission found the ad violated the state’s law.
The politician lost his re-election bid and dropped his complaint. Still, the organization pressed its lawsuit that the law chills the First Amendment right to free speech. A lower court threw out the suit because the group was not prosecuted.
The questioning by the Supreme Court justices in a hearing Tuesday gratefully showed plenty of suspicion that Ohio’s law has the potential to suppress political speech. Justice Antonin Scalia went to the heart of the matter by talking of such laws as a “ministry of truth.”
It’s up to the voters, not bureaucrats and politicians in government who may have a stake in an election, to decide the truthfulness and accuracy of the claims of those running for office and the advertisements supporting or opposing them.
Legislatures enacted these laws to keep lies out of politics. They may have been emboldened by the byzantine architecture of campaign finance laws that supporters justify as necessary to combat the “appearance of corruption” in politics. Appearance of corruption, like the truth of campaign ads, is a subject best left to the judgment of voters.
This case would be bad enough if it were the only assault on free speech. That’s far from the case. One of the most egregious was the Internal Revenue Service deploying its awesome audit powers to harass tea party and other conservative groups. Top IRS officials engaged in evasions and disingenuous answers before congressional committees. The former IRS executive at the heart of the scandal, Lois Lerner, invoked the right against self incrimination.
Somehow the mainstream media and American liberals don’t see a scandal here. That tells you a lot.
The left is behind much of the hostility to free speech these days. College campuses, among the most liberal environments in America, are notorious for shouting down or outright rejecting speakers they don’t agree with. The most notable recent example was Brandeis University withdrawing an honorary degree planned for woman’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has said politically incorrect things about Islam.
Commentator Mark Steyn is being hounded with a lawsuit for daring to question climate change alarmists. The head of Mozilla and the directors of the California Musical Theater and the Los Angeles Film Festival lost their jobs for donations backing a winning 2008 California ballot initiative against gay marriage.
These are sad days for free speech, free debate, free minds.