At its best, politics is a battlefield in the war of ideas. Ideally, all sides are heard and the best, most persuasive side wins. Faced with arguments that are offensive or wrong, the answer — and one codified in our First Amendment — is more speech rather than attempts to silence the incorrect speaker.
But to the American left this is no longer true. In the bestselling book about the failed 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign Shattered, the authors detailed the philosophy of the left: there is a cost for Democrats who don’t follow the establishment blindly.
In 2017, in an effort led by Hillary’s former lawyer Marc Elias, establishment Democrats are now attacking Democrats on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity for having the temerity to try to bring bipartisan balance to the investigation of the electoral system. Elias implied that long-serving Democrat Secretary of State, Bill Gardner of New Hampshire, is not a real Democrat because he accepted an appointment to serve on the commission.
Next, Elias’ ally Rick Hasen wrote an op-ed calling on another Democrat, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, to resign from the commission because Hasen, like other liberals, has pre-determined that what the commission will do and say will be offensive and wrong before the commission has even begun its work. Instead of wanting Democrats to have a seat at the table on President Trump’s commission — to hopefully represent the Democrats’ perspective and engage in an intellectual discussion for the benefit of the country as a whole — Hasen declares that Dunlap’s speech and participation would serve no purpose. The speech of the commission must be opposed before it even occurs, because of its association with President Trump. These lions of the law, known for their skills of argument, are apparently fearful they will be unable to counter the findings if they allow the commission to do its work.
And these Democrat thought leaders are influencing a whole new generation. Take for example the recent incident at Bethune-Cookman University, where Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was booed while graduating students stood and turned their backs or walked out during her commencement address. Apparently DeVos was guilty of saying “offensive” things like: “One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree.” Similarly, but on a smaller scale, graduating students walked out of a commencement speech by Vice President Mike Pence at the University of Notre Dame.
Do students have the right to protest, boo, and walk out? Absolutely. That is part of their right to free speech, just as DeVos and Pence have a right to speak. But it is a hallmark of intellectual maturity and valuing democratic ideals to counter speech with which you disagree by presenting better reasoning and ideas, not by attempting to shut down the offending speaker.
If graduating snowflakes, educated in the political bubble that is the modern university, cannot manage to sit through a bland, formulaic, motivational commencement address from someone who holds differing political views, how can they expect to engage as citizens in our democratic form of government? America is based on the idea that competing viewpoints—more speech, not less speech—ensures that the truth prevails, and our system of government is structured around that ideal.
However, progressives prove daily that they do not share this belief and that they think only their ideas should be heard. They spend time and energy arguing that their voices are the only ones that matter while wasting the opportunity to argue their opponents down. This is an increasingly frequent reality and should be troubling to everyone, but perhaps especially to liberals. Silencing speech is, after all, the philosophy of totalitarian governments and is antithetical to the freedoms guaranteed us here in the United States.
The left wants to institute a heckler’s veto, where if the speech is offensive to the listener, the listener’s right not to be offended (which isn’t actually a right) trumps the speaker’s right to speak (which is a constitutionally protected right). Courts and legal thinkers have soundly rejected the heckler’s veto, because the First Amendment right to free speech extends even to offensive speech.
And now liberals take their right to be offended one step further, declaring not just the speech itself offensive but the speaker, deeming conservatives themselves offensive. And if they wish to do away with offensive speech, what do they hope happens to their political opposition? The impulse to silence opposing speech doesn’t disappear at the lecture hall door. It extends into the big world of jobs and neighborhoods and even to the arena of elections and political speech, where our First Amendment rights are strongest.
In New York, for example, liberals have declared war on 501(c)(3) nonprofit charities, requiring them to disclose their donors if the organization gives donations or in-kind support to 501(c)(4) groups that are lobbying in New York. Disclosure of the 501(c)(3) organization’s donors is required even if its grant was to be used specifically for non-lobbying purposes.
The practical effect of this is to stop certain charities from donating at all to 501(c)(4) groups, even if their donations are not for politics or lobbying. The fear of exposure and negative public relations campaigns — which the left has begun to wield like a sword even if there’s been no actual wrongdoing — will halt these donors from giving. Democrat New York Governor Cuomo promoted this law as a way to shed light on so-called “dark money” in elections and lobbying. What this actually means is that Governor Cuomo wanted to limit the donations — and thus speech — of groups in opposition to him. The unintended consequence of this law is that donations to liberal groups have also been affected, to the degree that groups like the ACLU oppose the law.
As hard as Cuomo has tried to limit political opposition, he is an amateur compared to the New York City Board of Elections. New York City has been rife with vote fraud allegations and New York City’s Department of Investigations went undercover to investigate. The resulting report detailed how easy it was to vote in the name of the dead, the moved, or the ineligible. And it was largely ignored. In fact, the New York City Board of Elections asked the District Attorney to investigate and said that the City’s investigators should be charged with fraudulent voting for their efforts. New York is typical of the left’s reaction to matters involving free speech and election integrity.
And where does their crusade leave us? The left no longer wants to even try to win the debate; instead they want to silence their opponents. The establishment left’s fear of speech should be troubling to all.
Michael Thielen is executive director of the Republican National Lawyers Association.