Respect For Free Speech Dwindles Under The Left’s Assault

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Michael Thielen Executive Director, Republican National Lawyers Association
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Last week, Republican National Lawyers Association Vice President for Election Education David Warrington wrote about how Federal Election Commission Commissioner Ellen Weintraub is using reports of attempts by foreign actors to influence last year’s election as an excuse to call for broader regulation of Internet speech.  That editorial also covered the enforcement positions taken by former FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel to inform our opinion about where such regulation is headed.

In response, a member of the liberal “reform” community tweeted that such honest criticism led to death threats against former Commissioner Ravel in the past.  Ravel tweeted, “That’s the point of the article, isn’t it?”

No, former Commissioner Ravel, it is not. The purpose of the editorial was to oppose Commissioner Weintraub’s veiled attempt to retrench the free speech rights of American citizens on the Internet, regulations such as your proposal to establish a national database of the names of all Americans who post political opinions on the Internet and to regulate even free posts, and your calls—even as late as this morning—to “rethink all the exemptions for the internet.”

Ravel’s vote as a Commissioner to regulate the Internet Association’s streaming an interview of a candidate on its own website and to require Checks and Balances for Economic Growth to report its videos posted for free on YouTube.com represented bad public policy and inform our opinion about how current proposals for Internet regulation will affect the free speech rights of all Americans.  We have every right to engage in a policy debate that is a healthy part of our public discourse and to persuade the American people of our viewpoint.

But liberals like Ravel apparently prefer not to defend the substance of past votes or the effects of current proposals but instead dismiss our opinion as just another extremist threat.  It’s certainly a more convenient tact. It is much easier to dismiss a contrary opinion than to debate it on the merits.  But resorting to that old liberal meme that conservative speech can be so easily dismissed as extremism or invitation to violence does a disservice to the American people whose free speech rights are at stake.

Unfortunately the level of public discourse has devolved to the point where we need to state, formally and officially: The RNLA does not support, endorse, or condone death threats against anyone.  Death threats hold no place in our political discussion.  While we vehemently disagree with many people on policy issues, violence and threats of violence are never an appropriate response to someone expressing his or her opinion.

We recognize there are extremists and threats and violence.  It happens all too often in America today. And it happens on both sides of the ideological debate.

In fact, former Commissioner Ravel should understand how government power can expose its citizens to actual threats of violence.  In 2013, as chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, Ravel claimed that Charles Koch and David Koch had secretly funded efforts on a California referendum.  She later recanted.  But her public castigation caused the Kochs and their employees to receive death threats, which they alleged in a lawsuit against the state of California.  Based in part on that evidence, a federal court enjoined California from forcing Americans for Prosperity to disclose its donors.  Ravel’s use of official government power and false accusations caused private citizens to receive death threats.

Sadly, there are people at the extremes of both the right and left who, instead of responding to an opinion with which they disagree with more speech and better arguments, resort to violence or threats of violence in an attempt to silence the speaker.  The correct way to “silence” opponents in a free society is not to shout them down, threaten them, or dismiss them with labels, but rather to offer reasoning so persuasive that opponents cannot counter your arguments or are won over to your opinion.

Unfortunately this is not the way of the modern left.  On the college campuses that liberals have curated to be bastions of liberal ideology, students no longer respect free speech.  Disturbingly, in a recent poll, while students support free speech in the abstract, 51% of students believed that shouting down a speaker is an acceptable response if they disagree, and 19% believe that violence is an acceptable response.  While this demonstrates a striking crisis in civic knowledge and education among the people who are the future leaders of our nation, it also shows this shift is happening in American culture as a whole.  We are becoming desensitized to responses to speech that are completely inappropriate.

Ravel and her allies on the left are trying to promote their worldview by limiting speech through intimidation (dismissing all criticism as a threat) and regulation.  Regulation—the favorite tool of liberals for every issue—suppresses speech in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Regulations, especially vague ones, make speech cost more.  Consider the complex web of campaign finance laws that organizations wishing to speak on political issues and candidates have to navigate simply to express their views: disclaimer requirements, registration and reporting requirements, disclosure rules, and so on.  Consider how Democrats are constantly trying to raise the price of speaking through even more regulation, such as through the DISCLOSE Act reintroduced in Congress every year.  Consider how campus groups such as the Berkeley College Republicans have had to retain counsel and file lawsuits simply to invite conservative speakers to campus on the same basis as liberal speakers, due to campus speech regulations.  Fortunately, there are many civic-minded attorneys, such as RNLA Board of Governors member Harmeet Dhillon, to represent these individuals and organizations at greatly discounted or pro bono rates.

The First Amendment and a cultural appreciation for opportunities to speak freely protect everyone’s right to express their opinions without fear.  Let’s talk about these issues openly and trust the people to decide what is right.

That is the goal we should be striving for, and that is the purpose of our efforts to advocate the free speech rights of American citizens on the Internet, on social media, and in The Daily Caller.  We hope former Commissioner Ravel will engage in a debate on her record as a public official and her proposals to restrict and regulate political discourse on the Internet, instead of simply dismissing opposing opinions as extremist attacks.

Michael Thielen is executive director of the Republican National Lawyers Association.

Perspectives expressed in op-eds are not those of The Daily Caller.