Among the unhappier facts of life in America these days is that more than a few people support the suppression of speech.
The latest evidence of this is the formation earlier this month of a group called Truth Revolt. Created by David Horowitz, a conservative activist (and erstwhile leftist), TR says its mission is to:
Unmask leftists in the media for who they are, destroy their credibility with the American public, and devastate their funding bases….
Truth Revolt works to make advertisers and funders aware of the leftist propaganda they sponsor – and bringing social consequences to bear to create pressure on such advertisers and funders.
True to their word, the group published a story last week asking advertisers to drop their support of Al Sharpton's MSNBC program, Politics Nation. If this sounds familiar, that could be because it bears a striking resemblance to the actions of another group, Media Matters. Founded by liberal activist (and one-time conservative) David Brock, MM has targeted advertisers on shows like Rush Limbaugh and cable’s FOX News
Given their past ideological affinities, and their colorful take on things today, it would be amusing to see Horowitz and Brock duke it out in a debate. But apart from the muckraking both of them relish, there’s a serious problem with campaigns that seek to silence the speech of those with whom they disagree.
Contrary to popular opinion, however, that problem is not that such campaigns violate the First Amendment. In fact, the First Amendment doesn’t come into play at all here, except to the extent that these organizations’ right to engage in such behavior is protected against any governmental efforts as might seek to curtail them.
Indeed, when groups like Truth Revolt or Media Matters conjure up campaigns against their ideological enemies, and even when they attempt to silence individuals or media companies by attacking their commercial supporters, they are engaging in fully protected constitutional speech. But that doesn’t mean it’s right, or that it’s consistent with any decent regard for freedom of speech.
The First Amendment exists primarily to protect against governmental interference or control over speech, political speech especially, but the point of it is the protection of speech. To put it another way, we don’t venerate the First Amendment because it protects the First Amendment; we venerate it because it recognizes the value in, and the basic human right of, the expression of one’s opinions. Indeed, many countries practice a substantial degree of free speech without even having a First Amendment or its equivalent.
Campaigns mounted against the advertisers of disfavored programs or individuals cross the line between criticism and suppression. The same could be said of certain attempts by third parties to use government agencies like the FCC to censor TV content they dislike. Petitioning the FCC is legal, but calling for government censorship threatens the freedom of speech of the writers and copyright holders of those shows.
Because it’s been launched just this month, we don’t yet know what kind of reception or impact Truth Revolt will have. But if the example of Media Matters is any guide, we can be fairly sure that it will scare away some advertisers, and that the media will cover its actions uncritically ... or maybe not.
Founded in 2004, and financially supported by people like George Soros and the wealthy group of liberals that comprise the Democracy Alliance, Media Matters has the ear of many mainstream journalists and news organizations. And given the liberal bent of much of the mainstream media, it may well be that Truth Revolt will have to depend more on the so-called conservative media for coverage of its campaigns, but probably not always, and not without effect.
Though it’s been reported that Democracy Alliance has moved in recent years more in the direction of a partisan organization favoring Democrats, rather than a progressive infrastructure-building group, the irony of its support of outfits like Media Matters can be seen in its description of itself as a group that “strives to foster an open, vibrant democracy.”
How that is consistent with funding an outfit that traffics in the 21st century’s version of book burning is something perhaps only a “progressive” can explain. And it's something to ponder as the country celebrates Free Speech Week this month.
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils. A version of this article appeared in the online edition of USA Today on Oct. 17, 2013.