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As a longtime observer of the American political scene, Michael Barone is a defender of the Constitution’s First Amendment as a guarantor of both press freedom and political freedom. As the veteran journalist puts it, he’s “been in the free speech business for many years.”
But Barone sees a worrisome trend in which the First Amendment is under attack by those who seek to place onerous restrictions on the tradition of free speech in the political arena and in the academy.
“I guess you could say I owe my living to the First Amendment and to a pretty expansive interpretation thereof,” he says. “Perhaps I’m an interested party, but since I’ve been involved in this business, I can see the threats more clearly.”
Barone, a political analyst for the Washington Examiner and frequent Fox News contributor, also serves a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. As the author of “The Almanac of American Politics,” he’s a careful student of emerging trends and dynamics in the political sphere.
On December 3, Barone participated in a special panel focused on “Today’s First Amendment Environment” as part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “Free Speech & Business” symposium in Washington, D.C. In a follow-up interview, Barone expanded on his analysis of the attack on free speech rights.
Free Speech In The Political Sphere
Barone points to debates and court decisions of the recent past that have revolved around issues like flag burning and nude dancing as forms of free speech, and suggests that those debates are beside the point.
“Most of us think those are not the type of things the Framers had in mind” when they developed the First Amendment, he explains. “What they had in mind was political advocacy.”
In the political arena, the attempt to suppress free speech comes wrapped in the garb of “campaign finance reform,” an innocuous-sounding term that serves to mask an impulse toward control of free expression. Its advocates argue that money isn’t speech, so they’re justified in placing limits and prohibitions on campaign and advocacy spending.
“Of course, in a nation of 318 million people, it’s a little hard to communicate anything without using money in some way, shape or form, or at least to communicate that effectively,” Barone says. “Free speech is pretty fundamental to the political process, and free speech is not inexpensive. Money is an ingredient in speech.”
Which is why Barone is alarmed by efforts in Congress to curtail the free speech rights of the business community. He’s critical of the push this year by Senate Democrats to amend the Constitution to reverse the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, a proposal that he has written would “gut the First Amendment and other amendments as well.” That effort fell flat when it came before the Senate in September, with senators voting 54-42 to oppose the proposed amendment.
“It’s pretty shocking to me to see a large minority of U.S. senators voting to limit the First Amendment, insofar as it affects political advocacy,” Barone says.
One common line of attack that free speech opponents have deployed is attacking anonymous contributions of advocacy campaigns. But Barone explains that history gives good reasons as to why some donors might prefer anonymity.
For example, in the 1950s, the state of Alabama attempted to compel the NAACP to surrender its membership lists—which could have endangered the organization’s activists and donors. That case went to the Supreme Court, which established a principle that a voluntary organization couldn’t be required to disclose its donor or member rolls.
“One reason that political donors might want to keep their contributions anonymous is that a certain amount of vengeance is wreaked sometimes on people,” Barone says. “The risk of harm to contributors is perhaps less, the risk of violence is probably less, than it was a half century ago, but it still exists.”
Barone says that in spite of the effort to clamp down on the political speech rights of the business community and other advocacy groups, he remains optimistic that those attempts are bound to fail.
He points to a number of court decisions in recent years striking down prohibitions on campaign spending and other speech restrictions, and he believes most Americans continue to support a vigorously expansive interpretation of the First Amendment.
“I’m optimistic about the trajectory of free speech in American society today,” he explains. “I think that most people basically endorse the idea of free speech, if there are some disagreements around some of the margins.
“To some extent, the attempts to limit political speech have been attempts to limit the seaward flow of the Mississippi,” Barone says. “They don’t entirely succeed.”
Universities: Where Free Speech Is Dying
While Barone evinces a qualified optimism about the eventual triumph of political speech against attempts at suppression, he’s less sanguine about the state of free expression on university campuses.
The higher education system, Barone says, is increasingly riven by an oppressive set of speech codes and social pressures through which student activists and radical professors attack and silence competing viewpoints that might challenge the reigning campus orthodoxy.
It wasn’t always like that, he’s careful to emphasize. In the early to mid-20th century, American university campuses were among “the freest speech zones” in the society.
But that reputation for intellectual integrity has been squandered, and the higher education community today is marked by rigidly conformist thinking and weak administrative leadership that caves to minimal amounts of pressure from activists: “So that’s the corruption of an important institution in our society,” Barone says.
A remedy to that oppressive mindset, Barone suggests, would be for the university community to embrace the basic tenets of tolerance and mutual respect that people have for their neighbors in a hypothetical suburban cul de sac.
“You go on a suburban cul de sac you can find Democrats, you can find Republicans,” he explains. “You can find advocates of same sex marriage and opponents thereof; you can find people that think the Iraq was the right thing to do, and you can find people that think the Iraq war was the wrong thing to do. You can find people at their backyard summer gatherings debating these issues and discussing different views.
“People aren’t usually ostracized or condemned or penalized for their views on the suburban cul de sac,” he continues. “But in the university, that’s not the case. I think the suburban cul de sacs have the right attitude.”
Barone admits that he believes most students manage to navigate the campus speech wars relatively “unscathed.” But he also suggests that vigilance is in order, as the campus model of prohibiting and punishing free speech could have broader reverberations and “set a precedent” for the wider culture.
“I would urge [Americans] to consider seriously the fact that one of the great strengths of our society, our government and our nation is the First Amendment to the constitution, the right of free speech, freedom of religion,” Barone says. “I think those are very important aspects of our society, very important strengths. I would hope that our citizens would look more askance, and be vigorous in looking askance, at the limits of free speech in our colleges and universities.”
Click here to watch the full webcast of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s December 3 Free Speech and Business event.