No liberty is more vital to a democratic republic than its citizens' freedom to speak their opinions on any issue, and to join with those of like mind without fear of retaliation, official or otherwise.
That's why the First Amendment is the flashpoint of an emerging debate in which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio represent opposite poles.
Think what you will of McConnell, the man has been a dedicated champion of unfettered political speech for three decades. Last week, he delivered a seminal speech on the issue at the American Enterprise Institute in which he identified the fundamental issue at stake: "For the framers [of the Constitution], the highest form of speech, the form of speech most needful of absolute protection, is political speech, particularly at those moments of national decision we call 'elections,' " McConnell said.
That is why the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently "ruled that Congress may not ban political speech based on the identity of the speaker," he said. In other words, you cannot be silenced either because of what you say or who you are.
But there is a growing movement among liberals -- found mostly but not exclusively in the Democratic Party -- to use government to intimidate and silence speakers based upon their identities.
The DISCLOSE Act and related proposals are their preferred tool at the moment. DISCLOSE would require grassroots advocacy groups to make public the names of their donors.
Transparency in government is clearly a virtue, particularly of financial contributors to congressional and presidential candidates. But like any other good thing, transparency can be hijacked and turned into a weapon of political oppression.
As McConnell noted at AEI, that's why the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958 protected the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from efforts by Alabama racists to force the organization to reveal the names of its donors. Had the court ruled otherwise, it might have delivered those donors into the murderous hands of the Ku Klux Klan, a blow that might well have killed them and the civil rights movement.
That's why McConnell calls the DISCLOSE Act "nothing less than an effort by the government itself to expose its critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third-party allies."
Opposite McConnell is de Blasio, who was elected in 2009 to the No. 2 job in Gotham government. His job is to monitor citizen complaints about city services and advocate to resolve the problems. He's also a member of the city employees' pension fund board.
That gives him a voice in how the fund's assets are invested. Such investments are supposed to ensure pensioners' the highest possible return; de Blasio prefers to use them to silence those with whom he disagrees politically.
He uses the public advocate office as home base for the Coalition for Accountability in Political Spending, a group he founded with financial support from George Soros. Ostensibly designed to encourage corporations to disclose political contributions after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, CAPS was described last October by CityandStateNY.com as "the bully pulpit ... to cow Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citicorp, and JP Morgan into disclosing their political contributions and in some cases to agree not to make such donations altogether."
In other words, de Blasio is using his government job and a government-sanctioned nonprofit funded in great part by Soros to silence those voicing opinions with which he disagrees.
It used to be the First Amendment's best friends were mostly on the Left. But the comparison between McConnell and de Blasio suggests that today, the true defenders of freedom of speech and assembly are on the Right.