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Opinion

Protecting free speech means standing up for it no matter what

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Barack Obama,Senate Democratic Conference,Supreme Court,Democratic Party,Mitch McConnell,Campaign Finance,First Amendment,Freedom of Speech,NAACP

One of the glories of the United States is that every two years for more than two centuries, we’ve had a regularly scheduled election without fail and largely without incident.

Underlying this grand tradition is a basic bargain: Political victories won’t be based on the size of one’s army or on one’s ability to circumvent the rules, but on the potency of one’s arguments.

Over the past few years, however, that compact has begun to erode as Washington Democrats have grown increasingly at ease with silencing their critics as a way to gain a political edge.

As a longtime First Amendment hawk, I have sought to raise the alarm in real time on these multiplying assaults on the First Amendment, from a proposed executive order that would have required applicants for government contracts to disclose their political leanings before they could get a contract, to the significant, targeted harassment of conservative groups that we now know to have taken place at the IRS.

In my view, it is absolutely essential for the integrity of our politics and the health of our democracy that we not grow complacent in the face of these increasingly brazen attacks on free speech -- that we recognize them when we see them and call them out for what they are in plain English.

That was my goal this week in publicly testifying against the Democrats’ latest effort to stifle speech. Despite the many other urgent crises we face at the moment, I thought it important to make my way to a hearing of the Senate Rules Committee and speak out against Washington Democrats’ latest iteration of the so-called Disclose Act, because silence on this issue is not an option.

The Disclose Act has become something of a preoccupation for Washington Democrats. Its stated purpose is the forced disclosure of donors to political causes, but the truth is, it’s little more than a crude intimidation tactic masquerading as good government.

And the fact that Democrats are proposing it again is clear proof of their fixation on stifling speech. To dismiss this bill as just an election year gimmick would be a mistake. It is unquestionably that.

But its reappearance for the third time in four years is more than just a tactic. It’s a clear sign that Washington Democrats have given up on the power of their message alone to carry the day electorally. It’s a sign that speech suppression is now a permanent feature of their politics.

Indeed, it has now come to the point that you can set your clock to the Democrats’ attempts to stifle the free speech rights of the American people with whom they disagree.

In addition to the biennial reappearance of the Disclose Act, they have also routinely sought to use federal agencies to harass and intimidate those who would criticize the administration’s policies.

In recent weeks, congressional Democrats have also sought to empower Congress through a constitutional amendment to limit the free speech rights of individuals and groups.

And all Americans have gotten an education over the past two years in the ways government can be used to suppress free speech, as details of the IRS scandal have continued to unfold.

When it comes to disclosure, President Obama likes to say that the only people who oppose it are people who have something to hide. Yet history tells us otherwise.

Back in the 1950s, the state of Alabama tried to get its hands on the donor list of the NAACP. The Supreme Court correctly ruled against forced disclosure then because it knew that if people had reason to fear that their names and reputations would be attacked because of the causes they support, then they would be far less likely to support them. They knew disclosure would have a chilling effect on free association and free speech.

The Federal Election Commission has applied this same principle, by the way, in protecting the donor lists of the Socialist Worker's Party since 1979.

The First Amendment has been a consuming passion of mine for years. I have fought hard to defend it on the Senate floor and in the highest court of the land.

It has pitted me at times against members of my own party, including a Republican president. It's also led to some unlikely alliances, as I've repeatedly stood with both the American Civil Liberties Union and the liberal First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams for help in this fight.

That’s just as it should be. Some causes should transcend party politics. The right to speak freely and without fear of harassment or intimidation from one’s government is one of them.

It would be nice to think that both major political parties in this country still believed that. Tragically, the evidence increasingly says otherwise. So the fight for free speech continues. I, for one, don’t intend to let up on it.

Neither should you.

Mitch McConnell is Senate Minority Leader and the senior senator from Kentucky.
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