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KEENE: Free speech for me, but not for thee

The left sees their silencing of the right as a matter of good versus evil

- The Washington Times - Monday, February 17, 2014

Liberals back in the day liked to champion free speech and the First Amendment rights — even of those with whom they disagreed or found obnoxious.

They stood up for the rights of communists and other despised minorities. Famously, the American Civil Liberties Union even went so far as to defend the right of Nazi sympathizers marching in Skokie, Ill.

Today's liberals or progressives are a different breed. They seem to think that the First Amendment is there to protect their speech, but that those with whom they disagree should be silenced by whatever means necessary to advance their version of the public good, and they are involved in what amounts to a national campaign to deny First Amendment rights to their opponents.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has no qualms about using the power of the state to silence his political adversaries. He proudly took credit for writing to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) before the last election cycle urging that steps be taken to silence Tea Party and other advocacy groups on the right.

When this letter came to light, Mr. Schumer defended the Obama administration's use of the IRS to punish dissent and suggests that if the administration made a mistake, it was not in going after conservative groups, but in failing to do so publicly and institutionally.

In a recent speech at the Center for American Progress, Mr. Schumer said President Obama ought to use the IRS to get rid of the Tea Party. When confronted the next day by Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, he amended his statement to argue that he really meant the IRS should carefully scrutinize the activities not just of Tea Party groups, but of all tax-exempt groups of both the left and right. But his initial speech was clear — he singled out the Tea Party as racist and a threat to all that a liberal American holds dear.

To suggest that Mr. Schumer or anyone on the left wants an evenhanded approach to those engaged in political advocacy is pure, unadulterated bunkum. Mr. Schumer doesn't want to punish, silence or "shut down" the Sierra Club or former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's gun-control groups.

He wants to "shut down" those with whom he disagrees, just as his state's progressive governor wishes they'd all leave New York.

Mr. Obama's enforcers at the IRS have promulgated new rules designed to do just what Mr. Schumer wants. If they were adopted and evenly enforced, one has to admit they could be used against advocacy groups from across the spectrum, but anyone who believes that will also believe that the IRS didn't target conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status last year.

The idea that the IRS is being empowered to go after either side is a reprehensible affront to the very meaning of the First Amendment.

Or consider Wisconsin. Milwaukee's very liberal Democratic district attorney, who initiated and ran a three-year long "John Doe" investigation of Gov. Scott Walker's activities while he was Milwaukee County executive before being elected governor, has now launched what is being called "John Doe II." The first investigation targeted Mr. Walker; the new one targets conservative speech.

In Wisconsin, a prosecutor can launch an investigation that makes it illegal for anyone being scrutinized to mention publicly that they are under investigation. The investigators are trying to find evidence that Mr. Walker's campaign coordinated pre-recall activities with various state and national advocacy groups, though there is no evidence that such coordination took place or, if it did, that his campaign had any clue of who, if anyone, was involved.

Nonetheless, they have subpoenaed records, initiated what amount to nighttime raids on their targets' homes and places of business, and generally made life miserable for anyone the DA doesn't like.

Several of the groups being harassed finally went to court to quash the subpoenas served on them, and succeeded. They weren't able to comment on the case, their court victory or even hint that they were involved, but The Wall Street Journal got its hands on the court decision tossing the subpoenas on the grounds that, as Wisconsin state Judge Gregory A. Peterson put it, the subpoenas didn't "show probable cause that the moving parties committed any violations of the campaign finance laws."

It seems, according to a number of lawyers familiar with the probe, that not only have the investigators failed to come up with any evidence of coordination, but that such coordination, if found, won't constitute a violation of the state's election laws. In other words, they are searching for evidence that a crime that doesn't exist has been committed.

That hasn't stopped the investigation, however, which has essentially silenced several advocacy groups, including the Wisconsin Club for Growth, and dried up contributions to others. In other words, the DA has managed to do just what Mr. Schumer wants to do nationally; namely, "shut them down."

The state's left-wing Center for Media and Democracy is the group that many believe convinced Milwaukee officials to go after more than a hundred people from almost 30 conservative and libertarian advocacy groups without finding anything. Still, partisan investigators rifled through files and forced their targets to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

CORRECTION: The Washington Times retracted the final two paragraphs of an earlier version of this op-ed, originally published on Feb. 17, 2014, because they contain erroneous information gleaned from prior news reports about the Center for Media and Democracy and its executive director, Lisa Graves.  Contrary to the article:

* Ms. Graves was not asked at a news conference why the Center was “urging an investigation of coordination among right-of-center groups when advocacy groups on the left also spent millions in the [Wisconsin Governor Scott] Walker recall election.”  In fact, a reporter asked Ms. Graves why the public should be surprised that conservative funding groups are funding conservative causes in general, and did not refer to the Walker recall election.

 * Ms. Graves did not argue that government investigators had “no need to be even-handed because the left-leaning groups are doing good rather than evil” or that prosecutors should treat campaign funding groups of different ideologies differently.  She asserted instead that right-of-center contributors differ from at least some left-of-center funders by seeking to advance both ideological and their own corporate interests, and that the conservative groups generally do not identify their funding sources;

 * Ms. Graves was not questioned about and did not express support for “those seeking to regulate, harass and even prosecute right-of-center advocacy,” or to “jettison” the First Amendment or “shut down” those who disagree with any such persons;

* The Washington Times is not aware of any evidence that the Center for Media and Democracy directly persuaded or “convinced Milwaukee officials to go after more than a hundred people from almost 30 conservative and libertarian advocacy groups without finding anything.” 

David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.

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