Commentary Magazine


Topic: free speech

UN Internet Control As Bad As Feared

Back in November 2012, Arthur Herman, author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, warned in the pages of COMMENTARY about what was at stake because of the Obama administration’s decision to turn control over the governance and regulation of the Internet to the United Nations. He explained:

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Back in November 2012, Arthur Herman, author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, warned in the pages of COMMENTARY about what was at stake because of the Obama administration’s decision to turn control over the governance and regulation of the Internet to the United Nations. He explained:

This all began in 2005, when the United Nations sponsored a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis. That choice of venue was itself rich with irony, since Tunisia’s then dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was the Arab world’s leading censor of the Internet, and the two sponsors of the summit’s trade fair were China’s biggest network companies, Huawei and ZTE. They are the anchors of China’s Great Firewall that keeps out Western ideas and suppresses dissent—and also leaves it free to hack into the secrets of Western governments and corporations more or less at will. That is precisely the kind of Internet many other countries would like to have, and China emerged from the Tunis meeting as their chief spokesman. Several belong to the so-called G-77 of developing countries, which includes Pakistan, the Philippines, Brazil, and Argentina, as well as Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. They believe that the administration of the World Wide Web by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), headquartered in Los Angeles, isn’t responsive enough to the needs of developing countries, and so they pushed through a paragraph in the Tunis final report that “underlines the need to maximize the participation of developing countries in decisions regarding Internet governance, which should reflect their interests, as well as in development and capacity building”—in other words, in helping governments control what their citizens can see, and can’t see, on the Internet. The best way to do that, China proposed in the run-up to the Tunis meeting, was to take administrative control of the Internet away from ICANN and hand it over to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

And here is Heritage with some more detail. The Obama administration cared little, however. Faced with international passions whipped up by Edward Snowden’s leaks—often framed inaccurately by those seeking to amplify his revelations into something more nefarious—it agreed to complete the handover of Internet regulation to the United Nations earlier this year, a move which will become final in a year.

The United Nations has long made itself a laughing stock with its choice of promotions and chairmanships. Take, for example, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya becoming chair of the UN Human Rights Commission or Iran chairing a non-proliferation conference. If Hamas were a member of the United Nations, UN bureaucrats would likely find a way to put it in charge of counter-terrorism.

Over the past few years, Turkey has distinguished itself with an unprecedented crackdown on not only the media, but also the Internet and Twitter. So what does the United Nations do? It chooses Turkey to host an Internet governance forum:

Turkey has begun hosting the ninth annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum, a United Nations-mandated organization, despite a number of recent controversies regarding the country’s Internet freedom record. Speaking at the event Sept. 2, Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communication Lütfi Elvan focused mainly on the issues of “cybercrimes.” “The Internet is abused by criminal networks, terrorist organizations, drug smugglers and child abusers. Sadly, the rampant abuse of the Internet has reached undesirable heights,” Elvan said.

Amnesty International rightly chimed in to criticize Turkey’s selection:

The Turkish government’s prosecution of Twitter critics is a deeply hypocritical stance for the host of the Internet Governance Forum, Amnesty International said today… The event, which takes place in Istanbul between 2 and 5 September, brings together governments and civil society to share best practice on Internet regulation, security and human rights.Twenty-nine Twitter users are being tried in Izmir, Turkey, and face up to three years in jail for posting tweets during last year’s protests that the authorities claim “incite the public to break the law.” None of the tweets contained any incitement to violence.

Many non-governmental activists urging transfer of Internet governance to the United Nations seemed most concerned with taking regulatory power away from a U.S.-based organization and simply hoped that the United Nations would do the right thing once vested with new power over the Internet. The United Nations, however, seems intent on proving itself unworthy. The question for those committed to free speech and free exchange of information is whether it is too late to rectify the situation and save the internet from a UN bureaucracy more inclined to assuage dictatorships like Turkey than defend freedom and liberty.

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Dems’ Plan to Counter Criticism: Outlaw It

A common pattern in American political discourse is for conservatives to accuse liberals of some statist extremism, liberals to insist the complaint has no merit whatsoever, and then when it’s clear conservatives are on to something liberals lament, more in sorrow than in anger, that conservatives had a point but took it way too far. How vindicated conservatives then feel if information comes to light to back up their warnings about the slippery slope of state power.

The evolution of the Democrats’ deranged attacks on the Koch brothers and political participation in general has followed precisely this pattern. The trickle of mentions of the Kochs turned into a flood, as Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid became thoroughly incapable of discussing any topic–campaign finance, Ukraine, the minimum wage–without calling out the libertarian philanthropists. He called their participation in the political process “un-American” in an ever-escalating crusade to declare them former people and seek to pressure the judiciary into permitting limitations on free speech rights.

Conservatives warned that high-profile Democrats’ hostility to the First Amendment was liable to result in the curbing of Americans’ constitutional rights. Liberals scoffed. Yet now, the Hill reports, Democrats–who haven’t exactly been models of subtlety, but who at least permitted liberals some plausible deniability–are through beating around the bush. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has announced his party’s newest midterm election strategy: amend the Constitution to rein in its free speech protections. From the Hill:

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A common pattern in American political discourse is for conservatives to accuse liberals of some statist extremism, liberals to insist the complaint has no merit whatsoever, and then when it’s clear conservatives are on to something liberals lament, more in sorrow than in anger, that conservatives had a point but took it way too far. How vindicated conservatives then feel if information comes to light to back up their warnings about the slippery slope of state power.

The evolution of the Democrats’ deranged attacks on the Koch brothers and political participation in general has followed precisely this pattern. The trickle of mentions of the Kochs turned into a flood, as Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid became thoroughly incapable of discussing any topic–campaign finance, Ukraine, the minimum wage–without calling out the libertarian philanthropists. He called their participation in the political process “un-American” in an ever-escalating crusade to declare them former people and seek to pressure the judiciary into permitting limitations on free speech rights.

Conservatives warned that high-profile Democrats’ hostility to the First Amendment was liable to result in the curbing of Americans’ constitutional rights. Liberals scoffed. Yet now, the Hill reports, Democrats–who haven’t exactly been models of subtlety, but who at least permitted liberals some plausible deniability–are through beating around the bush. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has announced his party’s newest midterm election strategy: amend the Constitution to rein in its free speech protections. From the Hill:

Democratic leaders on Wednesday unveiled a plan to vote on a constitutional amendment “very soon” to overturn the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, which have empowered wealthy donors such as Charles and David Koch.

The amendment has virtually no chance of passing this year because it must garner two-thirds support from both chambers of Congress and receive ratification from three-quarters of the states. Democrats believe it will help them preserve their Senate majority, however.

Campaign finance reform traditionally rates low on voters’ lists of concerns, but Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist, believes a battle over a constitutional amendment will bolster their populist economic message.

“The constitutional amendment we know requires two-thirds, it’s a long hard road. But given the McCutcheon decision we have to begin it,” he said. “Most Americans don’t believe the system works in their favor. We are showing whose side you’re on.”

Now, of course the idea of amending the Constitution itself isn’t crazy, and Schumer should be commended for at least adhering to the process. But the First Amendment is rarely the target. Voters tend to be pretty fond of that one, though Democrats increasingly aren’t.

Campaign-finance restrictions of the sort Democrats favor are quite plainly incumbent protection plans. Democrats have been taking a beating lately in the polls, as public opinion has soured on their flailing agenda. So Schumer has proposed a solution: no need to change the policies to adhere to public opinion if you can just restrict the public’s ability to express that opinion.

A constitutional amendment to outlaw criticism is a bit heavyhanded even for someone like Schumer. But it has the effect of confirming, from the mouths of Democrats themselves, that yes, there is a slippery slope from criticizing the wealthy to explicitly targeting constitutional rights–and they intend to slide down it head-first.

Obviously the attempt will fail to get the votes; whatever their faults, it’s doubtful most of the Democrats running for reelection have completely lost their minds. Additionally, the Democrats have already sacrificed seats for The Cause, by voting for ObamaCare and then getting their clocks cleaned in the following midterms. I’m not sure how many times the White House and Democratic congressional leadership can hope to get their party to vote for abusive federal power grabs that are openly hostile to public opinion and individual rights.

The point, according to Schumer and Co., is really about messaging anyway. The message is this: they have to take away your rights in order to take away the Kochs’ rights. Democrats are keen on fairness, and it’s only fair to legally bar everyone from certain constitutionally protected political activism in order to weaken Democrats’ opponents. It’s possible this sounded less crazy in Schumer’s head before he announced it, but either way he seems pretty committed to it now, a fact which I imagine delights Republican candidates across the country.

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Re: The Shame of Brandeis

John Podhoretz rightly castigates Brandeis for rescinding an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an important critic of the manner in which many women are treated in the Islamic world. While I do not always agree with Ayaan, whom I have met two or three times, John is absolutely right to call the decision of the president of Brandeis an act of a “gutless, spineless, simpering coward.”

That said, it’s important not to see such an act in isolation, for what happened at Brandeis is increasingly the rule rather than the exception. When I was in New York in February, I picked up a copy of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. I was lucky I did, because while I have visited the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website from time to time (where Lukianoff is president) Unlearning Liberty ties together all the threads and cases and unfortunately paints a pretty distressing picture of just how far universities have fallen from being bastions of tolerance, free speech, and ideological diversity.

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John Podhoretz rightly castigates Brandeis for rescinding an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an important critic of the manner in which many women are treated in the Islamic world. While I do not always agree with Ayaan, whom I have met two or three times, John is absolutely right to call the decision of the president of Brandeis an act of a “gutless, spineless, simpering coward.”

That said, it’s important not to see such an act in isolation, for what happened at Brandeis is increasingly the rule rather than the exception. When I was in New York in February, I picked up a copy of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. I was lucky I did, because while I have visited the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website from time to time (where Lukianoff is president) Unlearning Liberty ties together all the threads and cases and unfortunately paints a pretty distressing picture of just how far universities have fallen from being bastions of tolerance, free speech, and ideological diversity.

He describes—with ample evidence and numerous anecdotes—the implication of the 1990s political correctness movement; the rise of campus speech codes; bureaucracies and lack of due process; the transformation of identity politics into a religion and the sacrifice of respect for individual religious choices at the altar of identity politics; the lack of due process in campus judiciaries and their prosecution of ideological crimes; and much, much more. Alas, it’s not just students who suffer: Few professors say they feel free expressing their opinion openly, and administrators who have many opinions but shallow academic background often seek to censor what can be taught so as to insulate students from offense.

Hands down, Unlearning Liberty was the most impressive book I have read in quite some time; that I finished it just two days prior to Brandeis’s decision was an unfortunate coincidence, but one that simply transformed the Brandeis case into the final exclamation point in a far broader problem.

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Court Strikes a Blow for Free Speech and Political Sanity

Liberals didn’t like the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that struck down federal limits on political speech from independent groups because they saw it as a the first step toward dismantling the campaign finance regulatory system that aimed to suppress political speech. They will be just as, if not more, unhappy with the court’s 5-4 ruling today in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that rightly held that federal caps on the amount of money individuals could give to candidates, parties, and PACs are unconstitutional.

But while we can expect to hear a chorus of condemnation of the court from the White House, liberal Democrats, and mainstream media pundits who will see this as opening the floodgates to corruption, the warnings that these rulings herald the end of democracy are false. What the court has done today is to reaffirm core constitutional principles that protect the rights of every American to participate in the political system. But just as importantly, by taking the next step toward dismantling a dysfunctional and deeply unfair regulatory system, the court has opened the way toward a saner manner of conducting elections. While all past efforts at “reform” of contributions had driven donors away from the candidates and political parties, the majority opinion in McCutcheon will begin the process of returning them to a central role in campaign finance. That will create a system that is more accountable and freer of overweening governmental regulation of speech. Instead of condemning this sweeping ruling, liberals should be joining conservatives in cheering a step back toward a saner manner of conducting elections.

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Liberals didn’t like the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that struck down federal limits on political speech from independent groups because they saw it as a the first step toward dismantling the campaign finance regulatory system that aimed to suppress political speech. They will be just as, if not more, unhappy with the court’s 5-4 ruling today in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that rightly held that federal caps on the amount of money individuals could give to candidates, parties, and PACs are unconstitutional.

But while we can expect to hear a chorus of condemnation of the court from the White House, liberal Democrats, and mainstream media pundits who will see this as opening the floodgates to corruption, the warnings that these rulings herald the end of democracy are false. What the court has done today is to reaffirm core constitutional principles that protect the rights of every American to participate in the political system. But just as importantly, by taking the next step toward dismantling a dysfunctional and deeply unfair regulatory system, the court has opened the way toward a saner manner of conducting elections. While all past efforts at “reform” of contributions had driven donors away from the candidates and political parties, the majority opinion in McCutcheon will begin the process of returning them to a central role in campaign finance. That will create a system that is more accountable and freer of overweening governmental regulation of speech. Instead of condemning this sweeping ruling, liberals should be joining conservatives in cheering a step back toward a saner manner of conducting elections.

For forty years liberals built a mountain of federal laws and regulations that sought to restrict the ability of individuals and groups to make their voices heard on political issues. The campaign finance reform movement was portrayed in the mainstream media as a high-minded force for good government. But the effort to rid politics of the scourge of money was as futile as it was counterproductive. Money is the mother’s milk of politics and the legal labyrinth created by the initial post-Watergate effort and its successors did nothing to curb corruption but it did make the system more and more unaccountable as the laws made it harder to give to individual candidates or political parties. The cumbersome apparatus of campaign finance law made it hard to comply with the law without legal specialists. But most damaging of all was the fact that the thrust of this body of legislation was aimed at suppressing political speech—the one type of activity that the Constitution most sought to protect from the government.

The court held today in McCutcheon that the right to contribute to campaigns is not absolute (Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the other members of 5-justice majority on this point). But, as Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out today in his ruling, the government  “may not, however, regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”

The sordid truth at the heart of the campaign finance reform movement is that it has always been more about suppressing the free speech rights of individuals then about cleaning up government. There is no evidence the cap rules prevented corruption. But what they do accomplish is to make it harder to take down incumbents or to challenge the dominant voice of a mainstream media whose First Amendment rights to say what they like about candidates have rightly never been questioned.

Campaign finance laws never succeeded in driving money out of politics. But they have forced donors to resort to more indirect methods of financing candidates and causes they like, making the system less accountable. By removing such limits on donations to candidates and parties, the court will increase the influence of these institutions and allow more money to be put in the hands of those who are actually running the campaigns rather than outside groups. This will make elections more transparent and be good for democracy.

As they did with Citizens United, liberals will lament this ruling because it chips away further at the notion that government has a right to limit political speech. But, as Roberts said, “there is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our leaders.” Political donations are no different from any other kind of protected political speech. Allowing more speech, whether from conservatives or liberals, corporations or unions, won’t harm democracy; it enhances it. By ending the federal caps, the court has struck a blow for more freedom, not corruption.

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Adelson, Democracy, and Anti-Semitism

This week the Republican Jewish Coalition is holding a conference in Las Vegas, the home of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, its most prominent supporter. Like other prominent conservative political donors, Adelson’s largesse to causes and candidates he supports brought him a great deal of scrutiny in 2012 when he and his wife Miriam singlehandedly kept Newt Gingrich’s presidential hopes alive during the GOP primaries. Undeterred by the fact that most of the people they backed in the last election lost, the Adelsons are thinking about 2016. As the Washington Post reported in a feature about the RJC event, some, though not all, Republican presidential hopefuls are eager to win what some wags are calling the “Sheldon primary.” Anyone who supports Israel and the Obama administration’s liberal economic policies is apparently welcome to try. Perhaps extra credit will be given to those who back the magnate’s crusade against Internet gambling. But lest anyone think they are contemplating backing Newt or another outlier, in this cycle the Adelsons are apparently echoing “establishment” GOP thought by emphasizing an ability to win a general election rather than conservative ideological purity in deciding who will benefit from their generosity.

Their willingness to put their money where their mouths are makes them easy targets for abuse from those who don’t care for their politics. But a particularly low blow against them was struck yesterday by the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg, whose reading of the Post feature prompted him to comment that the RJC event seemed more like a plot by Adelson and a “bunch of Jewish zillionaires” to “buy the White House” in order to protect the Jewish state against the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the globe. As such, Goldberg thinks the “Sheldon primary” seems like the sort of thing Jews should either worry about or be ashamed of since he thinks their conduct seems like a classic example of the same kind of anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish wealth being used to subvert American foreign policy that is cited by some of the worst enemies of Israel and the Jewish people. At the very least, the Forward columnist seems to be saying that Adelson’s political activity is providing fodder for anti-Semites, but this is exactly the sort of reasoning that Jews of every political stripe should reject.

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This week the Republican Jewish Coalition is holding a conference in Las Vegas, the home of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, its most prominent supporter. Like other prominent conservative political donors, Adelson’s largesse to causes and candidates he supports brought him a great deal of scrutiny in 2012 when he and his wife Miriam singlehandedly kept Newt Gingrich’s presidential hopes alive during the GOP primaries. Undeterred by the fact that most of the people they backed in the last election lost, the Adelsons are thinking about 2016. As the Washington Post reported in a feature about the RJC event, some, though not all, Republican presidential hopefuls are eager to win what some wags are calling the “Sheldon primary.” Anyone who supports Israel and the Obama administration’s liberal economic policies is apparently welcome to try. Perhaps extra credit will be given to those who back the magnate’s crusade against Internet gambling. But lest anyone think they are contemplating backing Newt or another outlier, in this cycle the Adelsons are apparently echoing “establishment” GOP thought by emphasizing an ability to win a general election rather than conservative ideological purity in deciding who will benefit from their generosity.

Their willingness to put their money where their mouths are makes them easy targets for abuse from those who don’t care for their politics. But a particularly low blow against them was struck yesterday by the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg, whose reading of the Post feature prompted him to comment that the RJC event seemed more like a plot by Adelson and a “bunch of Jewish zillionaires” to “buy the White House” in order to protect the Jewish state against the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the globe. As such, Goldberg thinks the “Sheldon primary” seems like the sort of thing Jews should either worry about or be ashamed of since he thinks their conduct seems like a classic example of the same kind of anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish wealth being used to subvert American foreign policy that is cited by some of the worst enemies of Israel and the Jewish people. At the very least, the Forward columnist seems to be saying that Adelson’s political activity is providing fodder for anti-Semites, but this is exactly the sort of reasoning that Jews of every political stripe should reject.

Altogether the Adelsons gave a whopping $93 million to 17 different conservative super-PACs in 2012 and that’s not counting direct contributions to candidates that are limited by law (or the tens of millions that they gave to charitable and Jewish philanthropic causes). For those who think money ought to be driven out of politics, this is unseemly or a threat to democracy. But money is, and always has been, the lifeblood of American politics and the last 40 years of attempts at legislating campaign finance reform have proved that such efforts are counterproductive. Spending money on causes and candidates is an expression of political speech protected by the Constitution. The Adelsons are just as entitled to spend some of their billions to support pro-Israel and pro-economic freedom candidates as the Koch brothers are to support conservatives, George Soros is to back liberals, and hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer is to fund politicians who toe his particular line on environmental issues.

There should also be no misunderstanding about the fact that both sides of the political divide are doing the same thing. As the OpenSecrets.org site run by the left-wing Center for Responsive Politics recently noted, a list of the largest political donors in the period stretching from 1988 to 2014 reveals that most of the biggest givers were in fact inclined to support Democrats and left-wing causes. Twelve of the top 16 names on the list were unions while the other four were business groups that gave to both parties. Koch Industries, run by the aforementioned brothers of that name who are more hated by liberals than are the Adelsons, ranks a paltry 59th on that list.

As they proved in 2012, the Adelsons can’t buy anybody the White House. Nor can the Kochs, Soros, Steyer, or any combination of unions. But all of them have every right to use their wealth to promote the causes and candidates they support or to oppose the ones they dislike.

To imply that there is something untoward or unsavory about Jewish donors acting in the same way that other Americans do, be they union bosses or liberal financiers, is appalling. The essence of democracy is participation and pro-Israel Jews are just as free to use their wealth as those who are interested in preventing global warming. Goldberg is right to worry about anti-Semitism, but Jews being afraid to step out into the public square to advocate for their causes and to spend money to support those who agree with them will not stop it. Fear of antagonizing anti-Semites is what caused the leaders of American Jewry to fail to speak out during the Holocaust. Subsequent generations who mobilized on behalf of the Soviet Jewry movement and for Israel learned that lesson. That Sheldon Adelson and his friends have also done so is to their credit. Rather than being embarrassed by the “Sheldon primary,” pro-Israel Jews and supporters of free speech, be they Democrats or Republicans, should be cheering it.

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France’s Problem Bigger Than One Comic

Back in January, we reported here on the way a heretofore-obscure French comedian had popularized the quenelle — a downward facing Nazi salute — had become the symbol of a crucial shift in European culture in which anti-Semitism had become fashionable in some segments of popular culture. Months after Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala had started making international headlines, he has finally made the front page of the New York Times today with a feature that ponders whether efforts by French authorities to crack own on his activities have helped make him even more popular. As Seth Mandell previously noted, efforts to restrict free speech in this manner — even the sort of hateful, Holocaust-denying speech practiced by Dieudonné — are bound to backfire and this is exactly what has happened in France. Dieudonné’s audience hasn’t just increased as a result of rulings banning his performances and fining him for Holocaust denial have enabled him to bridge the vast gap between Muslim immigrants and right-wing French nationalists who share their hatred for Jews.

This is bad news for France and Europe. But the problem here goes deeper than the way the measures employed by government authorities and Jewish groups to punish Dieudonné have predictably boomeranged on them and turned him into a counter-cultural hero. This depressing spectacle can be represented as something new in which social media and the Internet have provided a forum for disgruntled people looking for a spokesman for their desire to use the Jews as a convenient scapegoat for their troubles. But Dieudonné is merely the latest outbreak of the same old European sickness that produced the very Holocaust that the comedian has tried to deny.

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Back in January, we reported here on the way a heretofore-obscure French comedian had popularized the quenelle — a downward facing Nazi salute — had become the symbol of a crucial shift in European culture in which anti-Semitism had become fashionable in some segments of popular culture. Months after Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala had started making international headlines, he has finally made the front page of the New York Times today with a feature that ponders whether efforts by French authorities to crack own on his activities have helped make him even more popular. As Seth Mandell previously noted, efforts to restrict free speech in this manner — even the sort of hateful, Holocaust-denying speech practiced by Dieudonné — are bound to backfire and this is exactly what has happened in France. Dieudonné’s audience hasn’t just increased as a result of rulings banning his performances and fining him for Holocaust denial have enabled him to bridge the vast gap between Muslim immigrants and right-wing French nationalists who share their hatred for Jews.

This is bad news for France and Europe. But the problem here goes deeper than the way the measures employed by government authorities and Jewish groups to punish Dieudonné have predictably boomeranged on them and turned him into a counter-cultural hero. This depressing spectacle can be represented as something new in which social media and the Internet have provided a forum for disgruntled people looking for a spokesman for their desire to use the Jews as a convenient scapegoat for their troubles. But Dieudonné is merely the latest outbreak of the same old European sickness that produced the very Holocaust that the comedian has tried to deny.

This episode demonstrates the problems that stem from the lack of American-style First Amendment free speech protections. Though France’s history of anti-Semitism in which both governments and the official church have played major roles is cited as a reason why hate speech an Holocaust denial are treated as criminal acts, Dieudonné illustrates the pitfalls of taking a marginal figure and elevating him to the status of a public menace. That had the perverse effect of justifying the anti-Semitic narrative in which Jews are falsely accused of manipulating society rather than defending it against hate.

But the real story here isn’t the failure of those who care about anti-Semitism to do something to derail Dieudonné’s popularity. It’s the fact that there is such a large audience in France and elsewhere in Europe for humor that is based on resentment of Jews. Though his appeal has been enhanced by the government’s decision to give him all this free publicity, the reason why his videos have gone viral on the Internet is that he has given a fresh voice to old prejudices.

Muslim immigrants brought their own brand of Jew-hatred to France where it found a home alongside the other variations on the same theme voiced by Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen’s Front National Party. The result is a toxic brew of prejudice that seeks to channel the resentments of the poor and the working class against Jews. This is exacerbated by the same trends that prevail around Europe in which elite and academic attacks on Israel have merged with traditional anti-Semitism to create an even broader base for Jew-hatred.

But, as the Times points out, the most dangerous aspect of Dieudonné’s impact is the way he is seeking to mainstream hate. The troubling rise in anti-Semitic violence in France isn’t taking place in a vacuum or merely the result of one man’s weak attempts at satire. It is well understood that the post-Holocaust reticence about expressions of open anti-Semitism has faded in recent decades in Europe. The combination of intellectual Jew-hatred which masquerading as anti-Zionism with Dieudonné’s jokes about the Holocaust can “connect with the masses” in the same way that pervious waves of anti-Semitism swept France at the turn of the 20th century during the Dreyfus Affair as well as in the 1930s.

Rather than focus all their energy on one rogue entertainer, Europeans who care about stamping out hate need to ask whether his ability to tap into old hatreds says something about other aspects of their society. Anti-Semitism isn’t merely the product of the banlieues — working class suburbs — where immigrant families live but a factor that has played a role in politics and culture for centuries. What they need are not more laws restricting anti-Semitic speech but a nationwide soul-searching about the way Jew-hatred has been enabled by a broader group than those laughing at Dieudonné’s jokes.

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Too British for the New York Times

Yesterday the New York Times’s David Carr scooped the story that Piers Morgan will be dropped from CNN’s 9 p.m. time slot. Morgan seemed–at least as far as his discussion with Carr went–to be taking the news in stride. “It’s been a painful period and lately we have taken a bath in the ratings,” he told Carr, adding that he’ll stay at CNN and has been in discussions with the network over a better use of his time.

No one seems to be surprised, least of all Morgan. But his departure is something that he, CNN, and Carr appear to be getting all wrong. So while CNN may think it’s learning important lessons from its Piers Morgan experiment, it may be learning the wrong ones. Both Carr and Morgan made much of the latter’s accent. He’s not from here, you know. But if anyone thinks Morgan’s ratings suffered because he’s British, they certainly haven’t been paying attention. Here’s Carr:

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Yesterday the New York Times’s David Carr scooped the story that Piers Morgan will be dropped from CNN’s 9 p.m. time slot. Morgan seemed–at least as far as his discussion with Carr went–to be taking the news in stride. “It’s been a painful period and lately we have taken a bath in the ratings,” he told Carr, adding that he’ll stay at CNN and has been in discussions with the network over a better use of his time.

No one seems to be surprised, least of all Morgan. But his departure is something that he, CNN, and Carr appear to be getting all wrong. So while CNN may think it’s learning important lessons from its Piers Morgan experiment, it may be learning the wrong ones. Both Carr and Morgan made much of the latter’s accent. He’s not from here, you know. But if anyone thinks Morgan’s ratings suffered because he’s British, they certainly haven’t been paying attention. Here’s Carr:

It’s been an unhappy collision between a British television personality who refuses to assimilate — the only football he cares about is round and his lectures on guns were rife with contempt — and a CNN audience that is intrinsically provincial. After all, the people who tune into a cable news network are, by their nature, deeply interested in America.

CNN’s president, Jeffrey Zucker, has other problems, but none bigger than Mr. Morgan and his plum 9 p.m. time slot. Mr. Morgan said last week that he and Mr. Zucker had been talking about the show’s failure to connect and had decided to pull the plug, probably in March.

Crossing an ocean for a replacement for Larry King, who had ratings problems of his own near the end, was probably not a great idea to begin with. For a cable news station like CNN, major stories are like oxygen. When something important or scary happens in America, many of us have an immediate reflex to turn on CNN. When I find Mr. Morgan telling me what it all means, I have a similar reflex to dismiss what he is saying. It is difficult for him to speak credibly on significant American events because, after all, he just got here.

It would be astronomically bad advice for CNN to absorb this nativist lesson. In reality, the problem with Piers Morgan was twofold: first, he opined on complicated issues without the slightest–and I mean the slightest–understanding of them, and second, he mostly called his guests names when they endeavored to explain those subjects to him.

There is probably no better or more concise example of the former than the following tweet, sent out by Morgan after one of the stars of Duck Dynasty said something he didn’t like:

Just as the 2nd Amendment shouldn’t protect assault rifle devotees, so the 1st Amendment shouldn’t protect vile bigots. #PhilRobertson

There isn’t anything in that sentence that makes a modicum of sense. Obviously, the First Amendment “protects” people who disagree on the issue of same-sex marriage with overheated talk-show hosts. The First Amendment protects even speech that is unpopular in Manhattan television studios (go figure!). Also, because Morgan was upset by a musing on the Christian understanding of sin, he was suggesting, as United Liberty’s Jason Pye pointed out, that perhaps the Bible isn’t protected by the First Amendment. Ponder that thought for a moment, and you start to understand why Morgan had trouble keeping his audience.

But the first part of Morgan’s statement is also typical of his style. I’m not sure exactly what constitutes an “assault rifle devotee,” and I suspect neither does Morgan. As National Review’s Charles Cooke (who also has a British accent, defying Carr’s stereotype) has pointed out:

We can argue all day about the silly “assault weapon” term, but “assault rifle” actually has a meaning. An “assault rifle” means that the rifle can be switched between safe (off, in layman’s terms), semi-automatic, and automatic fire. Weapons such as these are heavily regulated under federal law, have never been used by a civilian to murder anybody, and are strictly illegal in California. The definition of “assault rifle” is not controversial.

The terms one uses in such debates are important, especially where the law is concerned. Morgan never seemed interested in such details, because he never seemed interested in the subjects at all. He was given plenty of time to engage seriously in the issues at hand. He didn’t want to. He wanted to yell at people. That’s his right–and it’s CNN’s right to pay him to do so. The experiment failed because he refused to recognize the rights of others and the act got old, fast. Just as it would have without an accent.

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Latest IRS Scandal? Changing the Rules.

Earlier this year, the nation was outraged to learn that the Internal Revenue Service was singling out conservative and religious groups for discriminatory treatment when they applied for non-profit status. That scandal—which went to the heart of the Obama administration’s abuse of power and disregard for constitutional principles—briefly held center stage in Washington as agency officials failed to adequately explain how this could have happened and the cover story that the policy was only the fault of a few rogue administrators in Cincinnati fell apart. But, as is par for the course with the 24/7 news cycle, other stories, such as the NSA spying leaks, the government shutdown, and the ObamaCare rollout fiasco soon replaced it. It’s likely that the White House is hoping that the whole affair is now safely shoved down the country’s memory hole.

They may be right about that. Last week, the IRS unveiled an end-run around the problem of illegally targeting conservatives with a rules change. The new policy would reverse a 54-year-old regulation and essentially eliminate an entire class of advocacy groups that just happens to be used by far more right-wing activists than left-wingers. But to ensure that this transparently political maneuver by an agency that is supposed to be above partisanship got as little coverage as possible, the change was announced Tuesday with the rule only being posted on the Federal Register on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The pre-holiday news dump was largely successful as the development was buried over the long weekend. But the proposed change, which would severely limit the ability of advocacy groups to gain the crucial advantage afforded by those with tax-exempt-status, should not go unchallenged. The shift would essentially legalize the attempt by some in the IRS to target activists that came under fire back in the spring. Changing the rules in this manner is merely another effort by liberals to regulate and suppress political speech.

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Earlier this year, the nation was outraged to learn that the Internal Revenue Service was singling out conservative and religious groups for discriminatory treatment when they applied for non-profit status. That scandal—which went to the heart of the Obama administration’s abuse of power and disregard for constitutional principles—briefly held center stage in Washington as agency officials failed to adequately explain how this could have happened and the cover story that the policy was only the fault of a few rogue administrators in Cincinnati fell apart. But, as is par for the course with the 24/7 news cycle, other stories, such as the NSA spying leaks, the government shutdown, and the ObamaCare rollout fiasco soon replaced it. It’s likely that the White House is hoping that the whole affair is now safely shoved down the country’s memory hole.

They may be right about that. Last week, the IRS unveiled an end-run around the problem of illegally targeting conservatives with a rules change. The new policy would reverse a 54-year-old regulation and essentially eliminate an entire class of advocacy groups that just happens to be used by far more right-wing activists than left-wingers. But to ensure that this transparently political maneuver by an agency that is supposed to be above partisanship got as little coverage as possible, the change was announced Tuesday with the rule only being posted on the Federal Register on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The pre-holiday news dump was largely successful as the development was buried over the long weekend. But the proposed change, which would severely limit the ability of advocacy groups to gain the crucial advantage afforded by those with tax-exempt-status, should not go unchallenged. The shift would essentially legalize the attempt by some in the IRS to target activists that came under fire back in the spring. Changing the rules in this manner is merely another effort by liberals to regulate and suppress political speech.

At the height of the scandal in which IRS officials indefensibly singled out groups associated with the Tea Party or other conservative causes and faith groups for delays and denials, there were many liberals who argued that the problem was only that the government had been sloppy about the manner in which some activists were flagged. They claimed the real problem was not the way in which the government discriminated against some of those seeking non-profit status but the entire idea that any of those involved in advocacy on issues should be granted protection from the tax collectors. The goal, they said, should be to prevent groups with political purposes from becoming non-profits.

Critics of the existing rules were right when they noted that the old rules were vague. A 1959 government ruling allowed an organization set up under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code to have the status of social welfare groups “if it is primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.” That has been interpreted as letting groups spend a substantial portion of their funds on political advocacy, albeit after undergoing a subjective evaluation by the IRS that, as we now know, was tilted heavily against conservatives. Greater clarity was needed, but rather than merely eliminate the biases, what the IRS is proposing is to alter the rules to make it difficult, if not impossible for groups that aim at promoting political change—be it from a right-wing or a left-wing point of view—to become non-profits.

That might seem fair to some, but it will go a long way toward silencing grass roots groups that cannot build upon the advantages built into the system for other players on the political stage such as unions or business associations that will not be affected by the new IRS policy.

As even a liberal outlet like NPR noted, in one of the few stories published or broadcast about the issue in the last week, this will have a disproportionate impact on conservative advocacy which is far more dependent on 501(c) groups than their rivals on the left. But, like the various attempts to promulgate campaign finance “reform,” the real object is suppression of political speech.

Critics of allowing advocacy groups to gain non-profit status speak of their efforts as essentially theft from the public treasury, just as they regard tax cuts which allow citizens to keep more of the money they have earned to be a gift from Uncle Sam. But such arguments look at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. The real issue here is not whether there is something wrong with more grass roots and other advocacy groups being allowed to fund raise and not be forced to reveal their donors. Rather, it is the liberal panic that ensued after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down efforts by the government to ban certain kinds of political speech under the guise of campaign reform in their 2010 Citizens United decision. That ruling allowed more individuals and groups to make their voices heard and led to an increase in the number of social welfare groups that spoke out on the issues. The IRS scandal was part of a government effort to repress that rising tide of activism. The new rules will therefore complete the work the so-called rogues of Cincinnati started.

The IRS policy would put a crimp into conservative efforts until a new way around the rules is found, as is inevitable with such regulations. But the victim here isn’t conservatism; it’s democracy. Those who delight in making life difficult for Tea Party activists should understand that giving the IRS this kind of power over speech will ultimately hamper liberal grass roots groups as much as those of conservatives. Participation by citizen groups—even those we disagree with—should be protected, not made more onerous. These new rules, which will not go into effect until after the next election, should not be allowed to go into effect. The real and ongoing IRS scandal is the way the agency has been used to regulate political activity. That isn’t the job of the IRS or any branch of government, and American democracy will be more secure once such efforts are outlawed.

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Reimagining Free Speech at Brown University

On October 29, as you may have heard, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly was shouted down and prevented from speaking at Brown University. William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection has written extensively on the event and the ensuing controversy. I wish to address the three arguments, all of them weak, that supporters of the protest have been making.

1. Shouting down a speaker is protected by the First Amendment. One Brown student and protest organizer crowed that the demonstration was “a powerful demonstration of free speech.” We have heard this argument before. In 2010, when former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren came to speak at UC-Irvine, audience members attempted to shout Oren down. Eleven of them were arrested. Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of Irvine’s School of Law and the Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law responded, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, to the claim that the protester’s rights had been violated. His remarks are worth quoting at length:

Freedom of speech, on campuses and elsewhere, is rendered meaningless if speakers can be shouted down by those who disagree. The law is well established that the government can act to prevent a heckler’s veto—prevent the reaction of the audience from silencing the speaker. There is simply no 1st Amendment right to go into an auditorium and prevent a speaker from being heard, no matter who the speaker is or how strongly one disagrees with his or her message.

Chemerinsky, author of the Conservative Assault on the Constitution, has impeccable liberal credentials. He is also a critic of New York’s stop-and-frisk policing policy, opposition to which motivated the protesters. Nonetheless, he tells us that from a First Amendment perspective the “heckler’s veto” is “an easy case.”

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On October 29, as you may have heard, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly was shouted down and prevented from speaking at Brown University. William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection has written extensively on the event and the ensuing controversy. I wish to address the three arguments, all of them weak, that supporters of the protest have been making.

1. Shouting down a speaker is protected by the First Amendment. One Brown student and protest organizer crowed that the demonstration was “a powerful demonstration of free speech.” We have heard this argument before. In 2010, when former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren came to speak at UC-Irvine, audience members attempted to shout Oren down. Eleven of them were arrested. Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of Irvine’s School of Law and the Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law responded, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, to the claim that the protester’s rights had been violated. His remarks are worth quoting at length:

Freedom of speech, on campuses and elsewhere, is rendered meaningless if speakers can be shouted down by those who disagree. The law is well established that the government can act to prevent a heckler’s veto—prevent the reaction of the audience from silencing the speaker. There is simply no 1st Amendment right to go into an auditorium and prevent a speaker from being heard, no matter who the speaker is or how strongly one disagrees with his or her message.

Chemerinsky, author of the Conservative Assault on the Constitution, has impeccable liberal credentials. He is also a critic of New York’s stop-and-frisk policing policy, opposition to which motivated the protesters. Nonetheless, he tells us that from a First Amendment perspective the “heckler’s veto” is “an easy case.”

2. Raymond Kelly is so powerful that it is impossible to have an exchange with him. Naoko Shibusawa, a professor of history at Brown, applauds the protesters, observing that “‘Misbehavior’ is a tactic of the disempowered toward disrupting the status quo.” A Brown University senior makes a similar argument in the Guardian: “protest is discourse on the terms of the oppressed, and it takes a ‘disruption’ for marginalized communities to have their voices heard.”

Set aside that opponents of stop and frisk are not marginalized at Brown, where only 8 percent of students polled by the Brown Daily Herald support the tactic. More importantly, Bill de Blasio, who campaigned against stop and frisk, was just elected mayor of New York in a landslide, and Kelly is probably on his way out. De Blasio and his supporters evidently do not agree that, in the words of the same Brown senior, “the status quo does not abide nor will it even acknowledge critical analysis.”

3. It was an offense to blacks and Hispanics to invite Kelly, and no one who has not been stopped and frisked has a right to an opinion about it. As one student commented: “Ray Kelly is a terrorist, and he’s terrorizing our communities. Until you feel terrorism in your life, I don’t think you have the right to speak on this subject.” Marion Orr, a professor of political science and director of the center responsible for bringing Kelly to campus, evidently accepted at least part of that student’s premise when he apologized: “I sincerely apologize to my students,” he said. “Especially to my black students and Latino brothers and sisters — it wasn’t my intention to hurt you, and it hurts me to hear that my decision caused so much pain.”

Yet even after de Blasio’s campaign, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, 24 percent of black likely voters and 36 percent of Hispanic likely voters supported stop and frisk. In an August 2012 Quinippiac poll, a majority of Hispanic voters approved of stop and frisk, and while the great majority of black voters opposed it, a majority also approved of Kelly’s job performance. Whether stop and frisk is good policy or not, these data suggest that it is absurd to apologize to blacks and Latinos for the mere act of inviting Ray Kelly to campus. 

The good news is that these arguments are not accepted widely, even at Brown, where, according to the Brown Daily Herald poll, 73 percent of students disagree with the protesters’ decision to shout Ray Kelly down. Brown President Christina Paxson will form a committee to investigate the incident. In a letter to the Brown University community, President Paxson quotes the Code of Student Conduct, according to which “protest becomes unacceptable when it obstructs the basic exchange of ideas. “These standards of conduct,” she adds, “will be upheld and enforced.” Let’s hope so.

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Free Speech Can’t Be Redistributed

In the midst of a lengthy press conference rant earlier this week about his refusal to negotiate with Republicans about the government shutdown or the debt ceiling, President Obama took time out to ride another one of his favorite hobby horses: anger at the Supreme Court’s evisceration of restrictive campaign finance laws. The president sounded the usual liberal cries of alarm about the possibility that citizens or groups won’t be stopped from articulating their views in reaction to the Supreme Court’s deliberations on Tuesday. The high court’s 2010 Citizens United decision took down the McCain-Feingold regulations that effectively restricted political speech rights by independent groups and citizens. But the court’s ruling on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission could similarly strike down efforts to hamper the ability of individuals to contribute directly to political candidates and party committees.

According to the president and his cheering section at the New York Times editorial page, the likelihood that the conservative majority will rule in favor of McCutcheon’s plea to eliminate specific limits on contributions to candidates and parties is legalized corruption. They believe political speech should be severely limited because free spending will result in the rich or powerful “buying” elections. But at the heart of the campaign finance law impulse is not a defense of democracy but a desire to squelch it. Unrestricted free speech is not inherently Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal, but what supporters of the current laws want is to make it harder for independent voices to be heard. The campaign finance laws are set up to make it easier on incumbents of all parties and to reinforce the power of establishment media outlets like the Times, which can use its constitutionally-protected bully pulpit to promote ideas and candidates it prefers as much as they like. Just as important, the convoluted web of campaign laws at the heart of the McCutcheon case constitutes a barrier not only to speech but further actual corruption by taking elections out of the hands of the only political players that are truly accountable: candidates and parties.

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In the midst of a lengthy press conference rant earlier this week about his refusal to negotiate with Republicans about the government shutdown or the debt ceiling, President Obama took time out to ride another one of his favorite hobby horses: anger at the Supreme Court’s evisceration of restrictive campaign finance laws. The president sounded the usual liberal cries of alarm about the possibility that citizens or groups won’t be stopped from articulating their views in reaction to the Supreme Court’s deliberations on Tuesday. The high court’s 2010 Citizens United decision took down the McCain-Feingold regulations that effectively restricted political speech rights by independent groups and citizens. But the court’s ruling on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission could similarly strike down efforts to hamper the ability of individuals to contribute directly to political candidates and party committees.

According to the president and his cheering section at the New York Times editorial page, the likelihood that the conservative majority will rule in favor of McCutcheon’s plea to eliminate specific limits on contributions to candidates and parties is legalized corruption. They believe political speech should be severely limited because free spending will result in the rich or powerful “buying” elections. But at the heart of the campaign finance law impulse is not a defense of democracy but a desire to squelch it. Unrestricted free speech is not inherently Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal, but what supporters of the current laws want is to make it harder for independent voices to be heard. The campaign finance laws are set up to make it easier on incumbents of all parties and to reinforce the power of establishment media outlets like the Times, which can use its constitutionally-protected bully pulpit to promote ideas and candidates it prefers as much as they like. Just as important, the convoluted web of campaign laws at the heart of the McCutcheon case constitutes a barrier not only to speech but further actual corruption by taking elections out of the hands of the only political players that are truly accountable: candidates and parties.

As Politico noted yesterday, the main beneficiaries of a victory for McCutcheon would be both the Republican and Democratic National Committees. Since the law specifically restricts the ability of donors to contribute to these national political institutions, money instead flows to unaccountable independents like those protected by Citizens United. There is nothing wrong with independent groups having their say, and the McCain-Feingold effort to stop them was an offense to democracy and, as the court rightly noted, an unconstitutional infringement of free speech. But if those interested in politics are able to give more to the national party committees and the candidates themselves, the result will be that the players in elections can have a greater say in campaigns and therefore be more accountable for what is said on their behalf.

Stopping wealthy individuals from giving more to parties and candidates won’t keep money out of politics. Nothing will do that, especially when you consider that the real corruption in government comes from the ability of politicians to use earmarks and other legislative tricks to dole out goodies to their allies or favored constituencies. The smart way to attack that problem is not by starving non-incumbents who have more problems raising funds than incumbents or making it difficult for others to donate to multiple candidates. Limiting the ability of Congress to play that game with earmarks and other legislative tricks will do more to keep the system honest than 40 years of campaign finance laws have done.

But at the heart of this case is the fundamental drive on the part of the political left to treat political speech as a commodity that can be regulated like interstate commerce. They don’t trust the ability of the people to sort out the varied political messages with which they are bombarded. Instead, they want to dole out political speech in small packages. Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said from the bench on Tuesday that limits on contributions give the “little people” more say. But what she really wants to do is limit everyone’s speech. The Constitution protects the right of all citizens, rich or poor, to speech. The law cannot favor some at the expense of others. Income may be redistributed via the tax laws if the Congress wills it, but free speech cannot be handled in the same manner. That is especially true when one considers that a citizen who spends money on an independent committee has no such restrictions but that one who gives to a candidate or a party is severely limited. Elections are influenced by campaign expenditures just as they are by many factors, but the notion that an office can be bought is given the lie by the failure of many well-funded or wealthy politicians.

The campaign finance laws have created a powerful bureaucracy and a set of laws that force politicians and even private citizens who wish to speak up to hire lawyers if they want to avoid being prosecuted for minute violations of arcane regulations. This does nothing to enhance democracy. The court should follow up on the blow it struck for free speech in Citizens United in McCutcheon. If it does, the only real losers will be those liberals who fear an unrestricted debate of the issues.

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Free Speech and Islamic Sensibilities

One of the most discouraging trends in international affairs is the way some Western nations have kowtowed to the calls of Muslim nations to treat “blasphemy” against Islam as a human rights offense. As the controversy over the publication of Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the YouTube video that the White House falsely claimed incited the murder of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya have shown, many in the West are generally more concerned with appeasing terrorists than they are with standing up for freedom of expression.

But however abject the Western stand has been abroad, most Americans probably thought no such concerns were needed about defending our rights at home. Yet a story in Politico brings to our attention the fact that such complacence may be unfounded. Apparently a United States attorney in Tennessee is seeking to use civil rights statutes to criminalize criticism of Islam or inflammatory statements that offend Muslims. According to the Tullahoma News, Bill Killian, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Tennessee, believes “Internet postings that violate civil rights are subject to federal jurisdiction.” Though the newspaper makes clear that Killian’s intent is to promote better community relations and to prevent discrimination against Muslims that is based on the false notion that all are terrorists, his willingness to dump the First Amendment rights of some in order to protect the sensibility of others ought to scare all Americans.

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One of the most discouraging trends in international affairs is the way some Western nations have kowtowed to the calls of Muslim nations to treat “blasphemy” against Islam as a human rights offense. As the controversy over the publication of Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the YouTube video that the White House falsely claimed incited the murder of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya have shown, many in the West are generally more concerned with appeasing terrorists than they are with standing up for freedom of expression.

But however abject the Western stand has been abroad, most Americans probably thought no such concerns were needed about defending our rights at home. Yet a story in Politico brings to our attention the fact that such complacence may be unfounded. Apparently a United States attorney in Tennessee is seeking to use civil rights statutes to criminalize criticism of Islam or inflammatory statements that offend Muslims. According to the Tullahoma News, Bill Killian, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Tennessee, believes “Internet postings that violate civil rights are subject to federal jurisdiction.” Though the newspaper makes clear that Killian’s intent is to promote better community relations and to prevent discrimination against Muslims that is based on the false notion that all are terrorists, his willingness to dump the First Amendment rights of some in order to protect the sensibility of others ought to scare all Americans.

Killian is, of course, right to point out that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists. The vast majority are law abiding citizens whose rights should be protected the same as those of anyone else. It is also true that those who fear that Muslims will impose sharia law on Tennessee or any other American state are largely unfounded, though that issue is not a fringe concern in Africa and Asia where the rights of non-Muslims are threatened by just that threat. If all Killian wants to do is to make sure American Muslims are not targeted for discrimination or violence (though there is, in fact, no evidence that a post-9/11 backlash of bias or attacks has actually taken place) that is also all well and good.

But there is a vast difference between defending the civil rights of a minority and seeking to silence those who hold views that are offensive to that minority.

If hate speech leads directly to violence or is used to create an atmosphere of intimidation or attacks against a minority group, the government does well to look into the manner. But for a person with the vast resources and power of the federal government at his disposal, such as a U.S. attorney, to threaten prosecution of those who say offensive things about Muslims on the Internet is to place free speech in jeopardy. Indeed, rather than silencing those who complain about sharia law, statements such as those of Killian are likely to fuel such fears–and rightly so–since he appears to be setting Muslims up as a protected class who cannot be offended without fear of recourse to the law.

What’s especially frightening about this is that the discussion of what offends Muslims has very little to do with actionable hate speech. As was the case with the YouTube video about Muhammad that the administration initially claimed to have been the cause of the Benghazi attacks, the video was something that was perfectly legal even if it was ill considered and nasty as well as inept. But just as the maker of that video was jailed on a parole violation (a turn of events that would have been inconceivable had he not been subjected to international opprobrium including condemnation by the president and the secretary of state), there now appears to be a double standard by which the government seems to view offenses to Islam. Attacks on Islam or even rude remarks about its prophet may be uncivil, but they are no more illegal than abuse directed at Jews or any other form of hate that the government rightly forebears from prosecuting.

Even more to the point, while the efforts of Killian to protect American Muslims are correct, if they are not also accompanied by calls for this community to do some soul searching about the way it has enabled and even coddled extremists who are fomenting or carrying out terrorism they do the nation a disservice.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke directly to this issue in a courageous piece published in the Daily Mail in which he rightly pointed out that the radicalism that led to the murder of a British soldier last week—as well as to other outrages such as the Boston Marathon bombing and a host of other terrorist attacks in the United States carried out by persons primarily motivated by an interpretation of Islam—requires both Muslims and non-Muslims to face facts:

There is a problem within Islam – from the adherents of an ideology that is a strain within Islam. We have to put it on the table and be honest about it. Of course there are Christian extremists and Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu ones. But I am afraid this strain is not the province of a few extremists. It has at its heart a view about religion and about the interaction between religion and politics that is not compatible with pluralistic, liberal, open-minded societies.

But instead of honesty about this threat, what Muslims are hearing from people like Killian is that the government may punish offenses against their faith. That not only trashes freedom of speech, statements such as Killian’s and others that stick to the “Islam is a religion of peace” line while ignoring the very real problem of Islamist extremism that is fomenting terror add to our problems.

Killian must retract his statement or at least clarify it to show that he has no intention of prosecuting those who merely offend Islam, no matter how objectionable their utterances. If not, he should be fired. But even more than that, his foolish attempt to mollify Muslims show just how clueless many government officials—including those, like Killian, who are connected to the security establishment—are about the nature of the threat from Islamist terror.

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Lee Bollinger’s Free-Speech Hypocrisy

Although the famous liberal intolerance for opposing ideas is often at its most stifling on American college campuses, there is one school with a free-speech track record so poor it outraged New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That school is Columbia University, and its president, Lee Bollinger, has made a name for himself by fostering an atmosphere of censorship on campus in which speech is often suppressed by the faculty and student groups, sometimes violently. One such incident took place in 2006, when speakers from the Minuteman Project were rushed by protesters storming the stage.

Bollinger wasn’t bothered by it, but for many it was the last straw, and Bloomberg unloaded. “Bollinger’s just got to get his hands around this,” Bloomberg told the New York Times. “There are too many incidents at the same school where people get censored.” It wasn’t just conservative groups or others that transgress the university’s idea of political correctness. Jewish groups were the target of intimidation by faculty, and there are ideological litmus tests for university programs. Additionally, Bollinger famously brought one of the world’s leading censors, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to campus while still banning the ROTC. No one in his right mind would consider Bollinger a friend of free speech except … Lee Bollinger. Here he is writing in Foreign Policy magazine advocating for free speech around the world.

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Although the famous liberal intolerance for opposing ideas is often at its most stifling on American college campuses, there is one school with a free-speech track record so poor it outraged New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That school is Columbia University, and its president, Lee Bollinger, has made a name for himself by fostering an atmosphere of censorship on campus in which speech is often suppressed by the faculty and student groups, sometimes violently. One such incident took place in 2006, when speakers from the Minuteman Project were rushed by protesters storming the stage.

Bollinger wasn’t bothered by it, but for many it was the last straw, and Bloomberg unloaded. “Bollinger’s just got to get his hands around this,” Bloomberg told the New York Times. “There are too many incidents at the same school where people get censored.” It wasn’t just conservative groups or others that transgress the university’s idea of political correctness. Jewish groups were the target of intimidation by faculty, and there are ideological litmus tests for university programs. Additionally, Bollinger famously brought one of the world’s leading censors, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to campus while still banning the ROTC. No one in his right mind would consider Bollinger a friend of free speech except … Lee Bollinger. Here he is writing in Foreign Policy magazine advocating for free speech around the world.

It’s not that Bollinger’s article is offensive–it’s standard but welcome boilerplate about the assault on free speech and the need to understand how a changing media landscape affects both the threats to, and opportunities for, freedom of expression and thought in a globalized world. But the choice of author is indefensible. There was no one with a better record than Bollinger to tout free speech? In fact, in American higher education there are few with worse records than Bollinger. And it is just plainly insulting to read Bollinger hypocritically and sanctimoniously pat himself on the back in paragraphs like this:

Second, the very essence of modern life is the opportunity for people everywhere to speak, hear, persuade, change their minds, know what others are thinking, and think for themselves. Our great institutions of higher education, including the one I lead, bear a special social responsibility for educating people to possess a nimble cast of mind, able to grasp multiple perspectives and the full complexity of a subject. And for centuries, great societies of all types have understood that this kind of intellectual capacity is essential to progress. But never have critical thinking and tolerance been more important for individual well-being and for our collective prosperity.

Indeed, Bollinger is right that he has a “special social responsibility”–and it is one he has abdicated in the decade he’s been at Columbia.

It’s not that Bollinger allows no offensive speech at Columbia; I was there to cover Ahmadinejad’s speech and saw plenty of anti-Jewish conspiracy theorists flaunting their pathological suspicions of Jews and countless portrayals of then-President George W. Bush as–who else?–Hitler.

In 2005, after pro-Israel students at the school tried to get the university to address the intimidation they were getting from pro-Palestinian teachers, Bollinger tried to avoid dealing with it. When the New York Times asked him why he didn’t get involved sooner, he explained that he’s just a man who contains multitudes. “I tried to walk a very, very fine line,” he said. “I have a problem because I like to see complexity.”

Lee Bollinger may be a complex man, but his record on free speech is simple and unambiguous. He is an expert on free speech only to the extent that he has clearly studied how to keep it off his campus.

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Incumbent Protection Plan in the Works

Out on the campaign trail, members of the House and Senate are currently getting a belly full of free speech as they fight to keep their seats. But many of those who survive would like to do something to make their next elections a bit easier and cheaper. That’s the conceit of a New York Times story about the discomfort many incumbents are experiencing as their records are being examined and often publicized. Their reaction to all this democracy is characteristic of the political class and appears to cut across party lines: suppress as much of the criticism as possible.

The problem for these politicians is that the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision unleashed the power of the public to promote political speech about elections. The fact that much of that speech is unhelpful to incumbents is a prime motivation for them to act in the next Congress to ensure that new obstacles are placed in the way of political action groups and contributors buying ads highlighting their alleged shortcomings. In this way, the Times, whose editorial agenda has been a relentless attack on free political speech, hopes that the largely defunct cause of supposed campaign finance reform will be revived. But the focus of the story on the new willingness of even some Republicans to go along with another round of “reform” reveals exactly why the court was right to invalidate large portions of the McCain-Feingold bill: the main beneficiary of the legislation isn’t free speech or the rights of the public but the protection of incumbents.

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Out on the campaign trail, members of the House and Senate are currently getting a belly full of free speech as they fight to keep their seats. But many of those who survive would like to do something to make their next elections a bit easier and cheaper. That’s the conceit of a New York Times story about the discomfort many incumbents are experiencing as their records are being examined and often publicized. Their reaction to all this democracy is characteristic of the political class and appears to cut across party lines: suppress as much of the criticism as possible.

The problem for these politicians is that the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision unleashed the power of the public to promote political speech about elections. The fact that much of that speech is unhelpful to incumbents is a prime motivation for them to act in the next Congress to ensure that new obstacles are placed in the way of political action groups and contributors buying ads highlighting their alleged shortcomings. In this way, the Times, whose editorial agenda has been a relentless attack on free political speech, hopes that the largely defunct cause of supposed campaign finance reform will be revived. But the focus of the story on the new willingness of even some Republicans to go along with another round of “reform” reveals exactly why the court was right to invalidate large portions of the McCain-Feingold bill: the main beneficiary of the legislation isn’t free speech or the rights of the public but the protection of incumbents.

From its inception in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the cause of campaign finance reform has been a futile effort to get money out of politics. But all the successive attempts to legislate limits on spending have done is to create new laws that only serve to make both politicians and parties less, rather than more accountable.

While Citizens United and the super PACs they have unleashed have been relentlessly portrayed in liberal organs like the Times as promoting corruption or undermining democracy, their real impact has been just the opposite. They have opened up the free market of ideas for both sides of the aisle, liberals as well as conservatives, helping to promote accountability. By making it easier for groups to spend money promoting their ideas and/or opposing candidates, the court has destroyed the dynamic of most congressional races in which it was virtually impossible for challengers to raise enough money to take on entrenched incumbents.

The victim of Citizens United isn’t democracy; it’s the laws and traditions of congressional politics that amounted to a near-foolproof incumbent protection plan. Incumbents are magnets for campaign contributions because everyone with a cause or an interest to be served by congressional legislation or influence wants to be in their good graces. There is no such incentive to help their challengers.

The mainstream media, which prizes its constitutionally protected right to exercise influence on elections, similarly looks askance at efforts to break up their monopoly on campaign information via campaign advertising. Citizens United has not injected more money into our political system, since money has always been — and always will be — an integral part of campaigns. Though incumbents will always have great advantages, what the High Court has done is to tilt the playing field a little bit more toward the challengers. And that’s what’s really got many of those quoted in the Times story upset. It wasn’t as the incumbents claim that the voice of the average voter is being diluted, but their monopoly on power. They want less democracy, not more.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has rightly pointed out, “the courts have said that Congress doesn’t have the authority to muzzle political speech.” But don’t expect that to inhibit politicians who would like to make it easier on themselves in 2014. Nevertheless, those Republicans quoted in the piece as favoring such limits ought to expect conservatives to remember their self-interested apostasy during the next election cycle.

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Protect Free Speech on Campus–For Jewish Students Too

Back in 2010, pro-Palestinian groups at the University of California-Berkeley staged a protest of Israel during which they set up checkpoints around certain parts of campus asking people if they were Jewish before deciding to let them through, and then watched as Jessica Felber, a Jewish pro-Israel student, was allegedly assaulted trying to participate in a counter-protest. To many, the incident typified an uncomfortable reality about pro-Israel students on campuses around the country, though it has been particularly hostile at UC schools.

The harassment—which, as in Felber’s case, can sometimes turn violent—has been all-too-common at universities, even (sometimes especially) at schools with a vibrant Jewish community. Anti-Israel activity doesn’t always take the form of physical intimidation; as Brooke Goldstein and Gabriel Latner revealed in COMMENTARY last year, it can take the form of university-funded events that raise money for groups that aid terrorists. But though the latter example presents a clear solution—don’t enable such fundraising—the question of what to do about harassment, especially nonviolent harassment, has been more difficult for universities, which often try to err on the side of free speech, to answer.

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Back in 2010, pro-Palestinian groups at the University of California-Berkeley staged a protest of Israel during which they set up checkpoints around certain parts of campus asking people if they were Jewish before deciding to let them through, and then watched as Jessica Felber, a Jewish pro-Israel student, was allegedly assaulted trying to participate in a counter-protest. To many, the incident typified an uncomfortable reality about pro-Israel students on campuses around the country, though it has been particularly hostile at UC schools.

The harassment—which, as in Felber’s case, can sometimes turn violent—has been all-too-common at universities, even (sometimes especially) at schools with a vibrant Jewish community. Anti-Israel activity doesn’t always take the form of physical intimidation; as Brooke Goldstein and Gabriel Latner revealed in COMMENTARY last year, it can take the form of university-funded events that raise money for groups that aid terrorists. But though the latter example presents a clear solution—don’t enable such fundraising—the question of what to do about harassment, especially nonviolent harassment, has been more difficult for universities, which often try to err on the side of free speech, to answer.

So the University of California school system dispatched a task force to its campuses to interview students and try to get a sense of how bad things truly are for Jewish students. They found that things were just fine for liberal Jewish students who openly criticized Israel, but far less comfortable for Jewish students who supported Israel openly and even for those who refused to join in the routine condemnation of Israel found around campus and in classrooms. (More on this task force in a moment.)

But the issue is now somewhat out of the university’s hands, as the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office announced this month that it has opened an investigation into whether the school is fostering a hostile atmosphere for Jewish students by permitting anti-Semitism to thrive on campus. This has led to some well-founded concerns about whether free speech is in jeopardy at institutions of higher learning. Wendy Kaminer offers a welcome defense of free speech and incivility, but completely misrepresents the students’ complaints to the task force and displays her own snide hostility to the Jewish groups bringing the complaint. Kaminer writes:

But combine popular support for restricting hate speech with ardent Zionism, and you have a recipe for categorically equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and restricting anti-Zionist protests in order to protect Jewish students from “harassment” and “intimidation.”

But the story isn’t about “ardent” Zionists on the march. The issue is about Jewish students who are the targets of repeated displays of anti-Semitism. That may be protected speech, but to paint the young Jews here as the true threat turns the case upside-down. And since violence was deployed against a Jewish counter-protester, isn’t Kaminer at all concerned that the Jewish groups’ free speech rights are at risk? Also, Kaminer never explains why “ardent” Zionism is a potent ingredient in the threat to free speech. And what makes Zionism “ardent”–bringing a law suit after being physically assaulted for being Jewish? Kaminer continues:

Still the U.C. fact finders’ recommendations are worth noting: They recommend vigorous regulations of political speech, partly to deter “bigoted harassment,” yet their fact finding mission apparently uncovered no instances of serious harassment or intimidation: “No students indicated feeling physically unsafe on U.C. campuses,” they report. I guess they didn’t interview the students whose complaint sparked the current Department of Education investigation, for whom vitriolic anti-Zionist protests were the equivalent of Nazi propaganda, threatening incitement of violence against Jews, if not another Holocaust.

Put aside the absurdity of regarding Jews in post 9/11 America, who’ve been embraced by right wing Christian Zionists, as more at risk than Muslims.

First of all, Kaminer must be kidding about the supposed invulnerability of Jews compared to Muslims. As the FBI has made clear, Jews are far more often the targets of hate crimes than Muslims are. That doesn’t mean Muslims aren’t also at risk, but they are, statistically, at far less risk than Jews.

More importantly, Kaminer is misleading her audience about that fact-finding task force and the complaints of the students. UC’s Jewish students claim a double standard: they believe that free speech rights have been granted to only some groups, or some criticisms. The students also said that the university has been less than accommodating when it comes to the religious needs and observance of its Orthodox students. Thus, there is an issue of religious freedom here as well.

Additionally, the Jewish students raised an objection to what they see as a consistent use of university resources and university-sponsored offices or activities that promote bigotry against Jews. That’s not about nasty students, but an institutional bias against Jews. And finally, Jewish UC students feel they’ve been excluded from working for campus groups specifically because of their views on Israel or religious affiliation.

Kaminer is right to defend free speech, but she should do so without distorting the facts of the case and railing against “ardent” Zionists and “right wing” Christians.

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DISCLOSE Act Shields Labor Unions

How’s this story for further proof that the real point of the DISCLOSE Act is not transparency, but kneecapping conservative groups while protecting labor unions from disclosure burdens? The Free Beacon’s CJ Ciaramella reports that Senate Democrats dropped a key provision from the DISCLOSE Act requiring political groups to disclose their names in the advertisements they fund:

“The ‘stand by your ad’ provision was dropped in response to objections we’ve heard from folks on the other side of the aisle,” the spokesman said. “It’s now targeted specifically at requiring disclosure.”

However, a senior Republican aide told the Free Beacon the provision was dropped due to union pressure.

The “stand by your ad” provision would have required the CEO or equivalent position of an organization buying electioneering ads—AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, for example—to endorse them, similar to the endorsements required at the end of ads purchased by political campaigns.

“The Trumkas of the world aren’t exactly the warm, fuzzy personalities you want appearing at the end of your ad,” the aide said.

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How’s this story for further proof that the real point of the DISCLOSE Act is not transparency, but kneecapping conservative groups while protecting labor unions from disclosure burdens? The Free Beacon’s CJ Ciaramella reports that Senate Democrats dropped a key provision from the DISCLOSE Act requiring political groups to disclose their names in the advertisements they fund:

“The ‘stand by your ad’ provision was dropped in response to objections we’ve heard from folks on the other side of the aisle,” the spokesman said. “It’s now targeted specifically at requiring disclosure.”

However, a senior Republican aide told the Free Beacon the provision was dropped due to union pressure.

The “stand by your ad” provision would have required the CEO or equivalent position of an organization buying electioneering ads—AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, for example—to endorse them, similar to the endorsements required at the end of ads purchased by political campaigns.

“The Trumkas of the world aren’t exactly the warm, fuzzy personalities you want appearing at the end of your ad,” the aide said.

The Senate votes on the DISCLOSE Act today, and the main provision remaining would require political groups to disclose contributions that are more than $10,000. Of course, public sector unions take most of their money in (often mandatory) dues, which means they would largely fly under the radar on that requirement.

Again, the DISCLOSE Act is not about political disclosure and transparency, which are both important and laudable goals. It’s about stifling free speech. The ACLU, not exactly a pro-corporate group, has raised alarms about the legislation for the last few years. In a March letter (via the Free Beacon), the organization urged members of Congress to vote against the DISCLOSE Act:

We acknowledge that the sponsors of the DISCLOSE Act seek the laudable goal of fair and participatory federal elections. We also appreciate the drafters’ efforts to address the ACLU’s concerns with previous campaign disclosure legislation.  And, we do support numerous campaign disclosure and fair election measures that promote and inform the electorate, including disclosures of corporate political spending to shareholders and rules that provide low-cost airtime to all political candidates.

However, we believe this legislation ultimately fails in its attempts to improve the integrity of our campaigns in any substantial way, while significantly harming the speech and associational rights of Americans. We urge you to oppose S. 2219 when it is considered before the committee.

The ACLU is right, for the following reasons:

  1. If you’re fortunate enough to own a newspaper or a television channel, you can use the platform to support or oppose candidates and legislation. Why shouldn’t private citizens who don’t own newspapers be allowed to  do the same by investing in their own media platforms — i.e. TV commercials, films, or print ads?
  2. If this is protected speech, then what right does the government have to limit it?
  3. If this is protected speech, why shouldn’t donors have anonymous speech rights?

Those in the media who support this misguided legislation because it purports to encourage disclosure might want to reconsider. Transparency in elections shouldn’t be bought at the price of free speech.

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