By Steve Huntley
Our freedoms of speech and conscience frequently are under assault. The 1950s are remembered with shame for the blacklisting of artists for communist or left-wing views and associations. These days, it’s the left trying to undermine liberty of thought and word by taking aim at conservatives.
Liberal Massachusetts found itself in the U.S. Supreme Court this week defending a law to keep anti-abortion advocates 35 feet away from abortion clinics. The cause was brought by a woman who didn’t shout at other women seeking abortions but only wanted to approach them in conversation to tell them of alternatives.
A history of raucous, even threatening protests produced laws creating buffer zones around clinics. But the Massachusetts case extended the zone beyond the eight feet protected under a previous high court ruling.
Even liberal justice Elena Kagan told the Massachusetts lawyer she was a “just a little hung up on why you need so much space.” It’s also worthy of note that the law doesn’t prohibit pro-abortion advocates to talk to women entering the clinic. Only one point of view is excluded.
The Massachusetts case is just the latest insult to the First Amendment.
The most egregious was the Internal Revenue Service abusing conservative and Tea Party groups with audits and intrusive questions such as asking about prayers. A promised Justice Department investigation, if indeed there is much of a probe, has been shrouded in secrecy. Recent days brought reports that the investigation was headed by a donor to President Barack Obama and that the FBI was about to rule that it was all a case of mismanagement.
Such an outcome would be an insult to common sense given the record of this case: the evasions of IRS officials in testimony to Congress, the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination evoked by one now retired IRS executive, and the leaking of the confidential tax information of a pro-marriage organization to its political foes.
Now the IRS is protecting itself by rewriting its regulations to justify such abuse of conservatives. Then there’s the Obama administration’s order that only churches are exempt from its order that all businesses and organizations, including religious charitable groups, provide insurance for contraceptives and even abortifacients. It’s a stunted view of the First Amendment that sees religious liberty protected only for houses of worship.
Colleges and universities should be bastions of free thought and expression. But a 2013 survey of 409 schools by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that more than 62 percent had “severely restrictive” speech codes that “clearly and substantially prohibited protected speech.” Conservative students are often targets of the codes. The good news is that the percentage is down from 2012; the bad news is that 100 percent of the colleges in Illinois and Wisconsin imposed these controls over expression and thought. An attack on the First Amendment can be subtle, as in “campaign finance reform” to limit political speech, or ugly and overt, like efforts by liberal organizations and officials to intimidate donors to stop giving to conservative groups. Protecting liberty is a never-ending struggle.