Who really opposes free speech?
RALEIGH — In a free society, the right to express one’s political views without governmental restraint or reprisal ought to be sacrosanct. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Some politicians and activists seem to believe they have the right not just to express their views but also to limit the right of others to do the same.
In today’s political environment, these enemies of free speech reside primarily on the Left side of the ideological spectrum. While their position lacks intellectual rigor or consistency, it is frequently and loudly asserted with an admittedly impressive amount of unmitigated gall.
Contrast these two examples: the North Carolina legislature’s response to liberal and progressive critics vs. the United States Senate’s response to conservative and libertarian critics.
Here in North Carolina, a rightward turn in the 2010 and 2012 cycles elected a Republican governor and General Assembly. These officials, in turn, followed through on their longtime party platform to reform and reduce state taxes, alleviate the regulatory burden on business, broaden parental choice and competition in education, and enact other conservative policies.
Last year, a collection of left-wing groups began sponsoring weekly protests at the Legislative Building in Raleigh. The so-called Moral Monday movement grew to encompass thousands of activists from across the state and beyond. It attracted tremendous media attention. It also resulted in several hundred arrests as many protestors ignored the standing rules of the General Assembly and attempted to disrupt the normal operation of North Carolina state government.
But some of the arrests were questionable, involving either innocent bystanders, ambiguous regulations, or both. Just before the 2014 session convened, the Legislative Services Commission released a revised set of rules. Although Moral Monday activists and like-minded editorialists claim the revision was some kind of tyrannical imposition, the truth is quite different. The new rules make it clear that the Legislative Building is open to all to say anything they like to anyone they like — as long as their actions are consistent with the equal rights of others to do the same, and of elected officials to perform their duties.
That means that lobbying lawmakers is perfectly fine but shouting them down is not. It means that assembling to protest legislative action is perfectly fine — at the south entrance of the Legislative Building if your crowd will fit that space, or on the Halifax Mall at the north entrance if you expect more than 200 people — but that assembling to block access to legislative chambers or offices is not.
A limitation of free speech? Baloney. Similar rules are in place at virtually every other deliberative body in the United States, including Congress. Neither U.S. House Speaker John Boehner nor U.S. Senate leader Harry Reid would dream of allowing protestors to obstruct or shout down congressional proceedings.
Speaking of Reid, however, there is a very real threat to free speech. But it has nothing to do with reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on the use of government property for protests. The real threat comes from the abuse of governmental power to block the transmission of alternative ideas and punish those who transmit them.
Reid, other Washington Democrats, and liberal activists here in North Carolina have long sought to limit First Amendment protections to corporations they like, such as The New York Times and Harvard University, while denying First Amendment protections to corporations they dislike, such as Koch Industries or the Heritage Foundation. Some have even been honest enough to grant that their proposed restrictions on independent campaign expenditures would require a rewrite of the First Amendment itself.
In light of the widely reported efforts of Reid’s Democratic colleagues to sic the IRS on conservative groups they dislike, the only reasonable conclusion here is that they believe freedom of speech belongs only to those who express the “proper” views, not to every individual or group of individuals who may wish to exercise it.
Those who assert that liberals revere free speech more than conservatives do are making a phony claim. I’ll still defend their right to make it, however.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.