EDITORIAL: Speech police

May 29, 2009

Read any history of the war between government censors and free-speech advocates in 20th-century America, compare those struggles to the ones now ongoing, and a curious shift becomes visible.

Whether the target of 20th century suppression was a naughty book first published in Paris, a nightclub comedian on the order of Mort Sahl or George Carlin, or even some rock ‘n’ roll crooner who insisted on swivelling his hips or lasciviously suggesting that two presumably unwed parties “spend the night together,” censorship used to be expected from the conservative right, from stodgy old men attempting to hold the line of “decency” against insurgent hopped-up beatniks.

Well, the beatniks and the hippies won. The war against censorship, one might conclude, is over.

In fact, censorship in America grows stronger by the day. And today’s is far more dangerous, since it deals far more directly with the right to criticize and inconvenience the government.

The difference is that today’s censors are almost exclusively the leftist minions of “political correctness.”

The health of the First Amendment on college campuses “has long been greatly imperiled by administrations so concerned with sensitivities of students that they enforce political correctness,” notes Bill of Rights champion Nat Hentoff in the May/June issue of the Cato Policy Report.

Censorship there is administered through college and university “speech codes” (sometimes incorporated into “codes of conduct”). “To create a harmonious learning atmosphere,” Mr. Hentoff notes, “these edicts ban expressions (verbal or otherwise) that may ‘offend’ students by ‘insulting’ or ‘harassing’ them on the basis of race, religion, gender, transgender, political affiliations, and views.”

Here at the UNLV, for instance, a constitutionally dubious campus speech code was virtually rubber-stamped by the administration and Board of Regents until press reports highlighted its obvious problems.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports that “77 percent of public colleges and universities maintain speech codes that fail to pass constitutional muster” despite “10 federal court decisions unequivocally striking down campus speech codes on First Amendment grounds from 1989 to 2008.”

Meantime, driven by the unquenchable popularity of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other conservative radio hosts,” notes Mr. Hentoff. “Democrats in Congress are intent on curbing the First Amendment, whether or not they can resurrect the Fairness Doctrine itself.

“An example of their passionate devotion to guarantee that we be protected from bias on the air,” Mr. Hentoff explains, “was an exchange last November on Fox News Live between host Neil Cavuto, criticizing President Obama’s tax proposals, and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ.

“Increasingly stung by the host’s refusal to retract his objections to Obama’s urgent program,” Mr. Hentoff reports, “Sen. Menendez, with icy concern, said: ‘I hope you are not one of the ones forced off the air’ when the Democratic majority revives the Fairness Doctrine.’”

A White House spokesperson has said President Obama does not intend to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. “However,” Mr. Hentoff notes, “he and the congressional Democrats have not abjured alternative free-speech restrictions that would be called by a name other than the ‘Fairness Doctrine.’ ”

If the president joins the Democratic leadership in Congress in achieving a disguised version of the Fairness Doctrine, the “contrivances” Congress is likely to substitute to rein in Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Hannity, et al. were described on Bill Cunningham’s ABC Sunday evening radio show by Brian Anderson, editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, as “local community panels” exercising their reviewing authority to recommend against re-licensing stations. Already suggested is having those renewals come up every two years rather than every eight years.

“Such threats could make skittish local stations program more ‘balance’ to satisfy those panels,” Mr. Hentoff notes. If stations, fearing the loss of their licenses, also insist on mandating reply time during conservative hosts’ program, Mr. Anderson adds, it would be difficult to syndicate such shows nationally.

The greatest concern of all, however, is the fact that few Americans actually seem to care.

The 2008 annual “State of the First Amendment” survey by the First Amendment Center in Nashville (firstamendmentcenter.org) found 66 percent of Americans say the government should be able to require television broadcasters to offer an equal allotment of time to conservative and liberal broadcasters, and that 62 percent would apply that same requirement to newspapers.

“I’m aware that James Madison, the principal architect of the First Amendment, is not a household name in this nation,” Mr. Hentoff concludes, “but this readiness to give government the power to tell us what we cannot read in print, as well as hear and see on broadcast radio and television, requires the kind of remedial education I haven’t seen mentioned by any of those who want to reform the No Child Left Behind Act.”

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Schools: Community College of Allegheny County Cases: Community College of Allegheny County: Student Denied Right to Start Advocacy Organization