Opinion: Columnists

Tim Carney: For Barack Obama, speech isn't free when it criticizes him

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Photo - President Barack Obama delivers the commencement speech Sunday, May 19, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement speech Sunday, May 19, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Politics,Opinion,Timothy P. Carney,Columnists,Politics Digest,Barack Obama,Freedom of Speech

Benghazi. The IRS targeting the Tea Party. Feds snooping on the Associated Press. These dizzying controversies around the Obama administration all carry the same lesson:

Watch what you say.

On Benghazi, set aside for a moment the dust-ups over State Department officials changing talking points, White House officials misleading the media, and congressional Republicans misrepresenting administration emails. Go back to what the administration was saying just after the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. diplomatic facility.

Many administration officials -- although they may have known better -- blamed the attack, and thus the death of four Americans, on a bad YouTube video called "The Innocence of the Muslims."

Protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Egypt did use the video as a pretext, and White House spokesman Jay Carney responded by calling the video "reprehensible and disgusting." Obama publicly attacked the filmmaker as "sort of a shadowy character who made an extremely offensive video. ..."

Later that month, federal officials arrested this "shadowy character" for probation violations related to making the video.

From the administration falsely blaming the video for Benghazi, to the White House's repeated denunciations, to the federal arrest, the message is clear: Watch what you say.

On the IRS debacle, the speech being policed isn't even offensive -- unless you find it abhorrent to criticize big government or President Obama.

The queries the IRS rained on Tea Party groups in 2010 were aimed at discerning just how political these groups were. What books will your book clubs be discussing? Tell us about your donors -- will any of them run for office?

While targeting Tea Party groups was clearly inappropriate, some of the IRS' questions were actually in keeping with federal law, which restricts 501(c)(4) groups' freedom to oppose candidates for office. This is problematic in itself because it puts the IRS in the business of telling Americans, "Watch what you say about politicians."

The IRS policing political speech is troubling for many reasons. The agency has the power to tax, and thus the power to destroy. Also, IRS employees are overwhelmingly Democrats, campaign finance data suggest. The result is powerful and sometimes partisan officials, acting on little legislative guidance to determine whether a group is "primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good" and whether it is "participat[ing] in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to" any candidates.

The decision to target Tea Party groups doesn't seem to have come from Washington, but the deep distrust of these groups sure did. When critics showed up at town halls in 2009 to criticize Obamacare, the White House attacked the protesters and questioners as "manufactured" and "funded by K Street lobbyists."

Speech and debate are important. Political speech -- specifically, criticism of people in power -- is the primary reason the First Amendment exists. Does anyone think it's healthy to have the IRS interrogating grass-roots groups and warning "watch what you say about the president"?

Finally, the administration secretly tracked the phone calls of the Associated Press to root out who leaked the report of a drone strike. Then the CIA told AP to hold off on the story so that Obama could announce it first.

This has a chilling affect on journalists. But it's also the latest salvo in the Obama administration's war on whistleblowers. Liberal writer Jane Mayer wrote in 2011 that Obama has used "the Espionage Act to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national-security leaks -- more such prosecutions than have occurred in all previous administrations combined."

More than any of its predecessors, the Obama administration tells its underlings, "Watch what you say."

All of these stories broke this month. But the Obama team has shown intolerance to dissent from the beginning. Remember during the Obamacare debate when the White House asked Americans to report any "fishy" emails about the health care bill? Linda Douglass, communications director for Obama's Office of Health Reform, said at the time her job includes collecting "disinformation" about Obamacare -- probably stuff like, if you like your health plan, you might not be able to keep it.

The three scandals of the past two weeks differ in their severity and in the White House's level of culpability. But they all have the same message: "My fellow Americans, watch what you say."

Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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