Campus Protests and Blatant Attacks on Free Speech

The blatant attacks on free speech seen recently on college campuses pose a special challenge to Democrats and liberals.  This, because the illiberalism inherent in the conjuring up by campus progressives of things like “trigger warnings,” “microaggressions,” and “safe spaces” is an outgrowth of the identity politics and victim culture that have been promoted by Democrats and liberals generally.

Take, for instance, immigration and our changing racial demographics.  In a demonstration of the most corrosive kind of stereotyping, Democratic strategists like Stanley Greenberg triumphantly wave the “demographics is destiny” meme like a sword.  Whether there is any predictive value in Greenberg’s recent claim that racial minorities are “supporting Hillary Clinton by more than 2 to 1 in today’s polls,” how is it helpful to profile them as bloc voters, politically defined by their ethnicity?

Are not Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans interested in having for themselves and their families secure middle-class lives?  And if so, might not some, perhaps many of them, come to see the governmental nostrums promoted by Democrats as being inimical to their ambitions?

The demographics-is-destiny meme crosses into the preposterous in the hands of people like the dyed-in-the-wool Democrat Chris Matthews….  >> Read More


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  The full version of this article appeared in The Hill on Nov. 25, 2015.

The First Amendment and Free Speech Under Assault

If you’re not alarmed by the assault on the First Amendment and free speech generally, you’re not paying attention.

Consider the list of offenses committed by the government.  They range, in recent times, from the Department of Justice’s spying on the phone records of reporters at the Associated Press, to the National Security Administration’s domestic call tracking, and from the IRS’s targeting of conservative nonprofit organizations, to the suggestion by the ranking Democrat on the Federal Elections Commission that political speech on the Internet should be regulated.

Other examples include the Obama Administration’s resistance to Freedom of Information Act requests, as documented in a study by the AP, and the issuance, by the CIA, of a subpoena to James Risen of the New York Times, demanding the identity of one of his confidential sources.

The party-line passage, by the Federal Communications Commission, of its so-called “Net Neutrality” regulations is another example.  In addition to inaugurating the regulation of the formerly unregulated Internet, the Title II approach adopted is certain, as FCC Commissioner Pai has warned, to open the door to attempts to use this regulation for purposes that, both intended and unintended, undermine free speech.

The most recent example of governmental speech suppression is the subpoena served on the online version of Reason magazine by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.  The subpoena, which for a time came with a gag order, demanded to know the identity of a handful of commenters that, angry about the life sentence handed down to the founder of the drug trading site, Silk Road, wrote denunciations of the judge who presided over the trial.

An example of one of the comments that occasioned the U.S. Attorney’s subpoena for the identification of that commenter: “I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.”

So there it is.  Your taxpayer dollars at work!  And not just by a few bureaucrats, but by a veritable army of them: DOJ, NSA, CIA, IRS, FEC, FCC.  As Everett Dirksen might have put it, an agency here and an agency there, and pretty soon you’re talking about some real government.

Making matters worse and infinitely more depressing is the assault on free speech being committed by people wielding the bludgeon of political correctness, a concept that from the beginning symbolized the very opposite of free speech.

The venues of choice for the PC speech police are mainly the media (social media especially) and college campuses, and 2014 was a banner year for such stuff.

Take, for instance, the petition generated by two “climate change” groups in February of last year.  Having collected 110,000 names, the groups demanded that the Washington Post stop publishing “editorial content denying climate change.”  The Post refused, but the Los Angeles Times happily adopted a policy that was similar to what the groups were demanding.

And then, of course, there are the campuses.  Last year’s examples of campus “disinvitation” campaigns against speakers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Condoleeza Rice, and Christine Lagarde have been widely chronicled, but the beat goes on.

In its 2015 Spotlight on Speech Codes, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that 54 percent of some 400 public colleges and universities it sampled maintain speech codes that violate the First Amendment.

FIRE’s response to this state of affairs has been to create a free speech litigation program that threatens offending colleges and universities with legal action, and the organization has had some notable successes.  But it’s doubtful that legal action alone will put the brakes on a concept that’s never depended on the law for its foundational principles or propagation.

Incubated on campus by activists and ideologues, and disseminated through the media, half-baked theories like “white privilege” and “microaggressions” and practices like “trigger warnings” and “speech codes” need to be challenged in those same venues by arguments based on logic, history, and science.

Absent this, and without congressional action to rein in the out-of-control federal agencies, free speech in the United States is at risk of becoming a dead letter; extant in the Constitution but without force or meaning.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils. 

If It Walks Like a Duck….

The storms occasioned by the comments of "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson, and A&E’s suspension of him, mirror similar unhappy episodes in the media and on college campuses.  As noted here, and here, and here, and here, examples of similar instances of free speech intolerance are plentiful.

Indeed, colleges and the media, the two institutions that one would expect to be the most supportive of free speech and diverse opinion, are in fact among the least.

Because A&E’s decision was its alone, and not an act of government, this affair is not a First Amendment issue per se. Since the network owns the rights to the program it can do whatever it wants with it. But when such matters arise within companies that are part of the only industry protected by name in the Constitution, one would hope that there would be at least a rudimentary respect for the broader concept of freedom of speech.

This said, it’s understood that in an age in which speech police abound, anything done or said by an institution or individual may become the target of organized protests, and for the media this can mean campaigns directed at their advertisers. This, presumably, was a factor in A&E’s decision to suspend Robertson.

Even so, it’s hard to sympathize with the network.  For one thing, A&E’s apparent decision to air next season those episodes of the show already filmed before they banned Mr. Robertson smacks of transparent hypocrisy.

And then there’s this: Cable TV is filled with reality shows that feature everything from hog hunters and alligator slayers, to catfish noodlers and wilderness dwellers.  Were a magazine reporter to interview any of the stars of these shows on any subject touching on the socio-political, what percent of them  would say something as would give offense to someone?  Maybe all of them?

Of course that doesn’t bother networks like A&E, so long as these people don’t in fact speak about such things. Seen from this perspective, the casts of such shows are like performing monkeys, there to engage in their usual antics while the networks play the accordion.

Not for the first time, one of the most poignant comments to issue about this affair comes from Camille Paglia. As reported in the Daily Caller, Paglia sees in this kerfuffle another indication that “the culture has become too politically correct”:

To express yourself in a magazine in an interview – this is the level of punitive PC, utterly fascist, utterly Stalinist, OK, that my liberal colleagues in the Democratic Party and on college campuses have supported and promoted over the last several decades. This is the whole legacy of free speech 1960s that have been lost by my own party.

One need not agree with Paglia about PC’s roots in order to agree with her about its corrosive effect on the culture.  With respect to matters of free speech, political correctness comes with a smile on its face but jackboots on its feet.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Attacking Free Speech On Campus

The great and widening political divide in the land, marked by hyperbolic rhetoric and personal attacks, is rued by many.  And why not?  Most everyone would agree that ours would be a more serene and nurturing country if the political differences among us were not so great.

But it is what it is, and it’s precisely because of our differences about the correct social, economic, and foreign policies that it’s so important to protect the right to free speech for all, especially in our colleges and universities.

Unfortunately, that imperative is being honored these days more in the breach than the observance, often by student “progressives” who, in gestures not of tolerance or broad-mindedness but of the rankest kind of illiberalism, attempt to shut down campus functions and speakers with whom they disagree.

The latest example is the recent shoutdown of New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who was invited to speak at Brown University about the city’s “stop and frisk” policy.  After he was met with protesters who wouldn’t allow him to speak, the university pulled the plug.

As reported in the Huffington Post, one of the students who helped organize the protest said that when the university declined to cancel the lecture, “we decided to cancel it for them.”  It was, this student said, “a powerful demonstration of free speech.”

Afterwards, the university president said she would convey to Kelly her profound apologies, but it’s unclear how deeply the commissioner will accept them since at a subsequent campus gathering the professor who invited Kelly to speak apologized for doing so, an act reminiscent of a similar affair at Fordham University when, under pressure from students, faculty, and the administration, the campus Young Republicans were coerced into canceling a speech by conservative writer Ann Coulter.

It’s not clear which is worse, the shouting down of people with differing views, or the Orwellian language employed to justify such actions.  What the students did at Brown was a “powerful demonstration of free speech” in the same way that mugging someone is a powerful demonstration of free will.

Happily, there’s been commentary about this affair that gives hope for the future of free speech.  Two such examples are a Daily Beast piece written by Peter Beinart, and a similar commentary published in the Huffington Post by Greg Lukianoff.

What Beinart and Lukianoff share is a broadly liberal background.  Beinart is a former editor of The New Republic; before becoming president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Lukianoff interned at the ACLU of Northern California and served as the managing editor of the EnvironMentors Project in Washington, D.C.

In denouncing the student protestors’ actions, Beinart warns against the collapse on campuses of the “vital center” on free speech issues.  “Convinced that freedom of speech is an illusion denied them outside the university gates” he says, “they take revenge in the one arena where the balance of forces tilt their way.”

Writing about, and on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the publication of, the classic book by Jonathan Rauch titled Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attack on Free Thought, Lukianoff offers this:

Of the many side effects of the retreat from free speech that Rauch predicted 20 years ago, one was that if we privilege feelings over free speech and allow claims of offense to slow or stop meaningful discussion, people will naturally abuse this ultimate trump card.  In the end, the societal bar for what is “offensive” will simply get lower and lower.  This “offendedness sweepstakes,” as Rauch has called it, does not take long to produce terrible or, often, absurd results.

Indeed it does not, as shown by the assault on free speech in the face of triumphant, not to say self-righteous, “political correctness” on the nation’s campuses and elsewhere.

As one commenter poignantly observed in reply to coverage of the Brown affair in Legal Insurrection : “Really scary real-life person prevented from expressing wrong views to delicate flower college students.  Fragile students saved from having to listen to upsetting opinion.  All is well in academia; students thoroughly prepared for real world now.” 


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 Nov. 6, 2013.

Brown University’s Campus Liberals vs. Free Speech

 By guest blogger PETER BEINART, The Daily Beast, Oct. 30, 2013.    

 “Brown cultivates a spirit of free inquiry,” writes its President, Christina Paxson, on her website.  “Brown prizes the intellectual exchange that is sparked by a diversity of views and experiences.”

Tell that to Ray Kelly.  Yesterday the New York City police chief was prevented from speaking on Paxson’s campus by students angered by the NYPD’s racial profiling.  Those students have good reason to be angry.  Unfortunately, they’re the latest in a long line of campus activists who believe their anger trumps other people’s free speech.

Kelly is only the most recent victim.  In 2002, protesters prevented Benjamin Netanyahu from speakingat Montreal’s Concordia University.  In 2009, activists at the University of North Carolina shut down a planned speech by anti-immigration congressman Tom Tancredo.

There’s something deeper going on here.  On the surface, campuses like Brown’s seem hegemonically liberal.  But in my experience, that apparent consensus conceals a crucial gulf between students and faculty who hold left of center opinions but accept basic norms of fair play and students who consider freedom of speech a scam employed by the powers that be to perpetuate their racism/sexism/classism/imperialism/homophobia.  Convinced that freedom of speech is an illusion denied them outside the university gates, they take revenge in the one arena where the balance of forces tilt their way.  And they thus inject into their own campuses the totalitarian spirit they believe characterizes society at large….

Click here to read the rest of this article at The Daily Beast.

The Daily Beast


Peter Beinart is the editor of and writes about domestic politics and foreign policy at The Daily Beast. He is also an associate professor of journalism and political science at CUNY and author of The Crisis of Zionism.

Five Myths About the Federal Shield Law

By guest blogger KURT WIMMER, ESQ., partner at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, D.C., and chairman of The Media Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council.

Free speech is the oxygen of the blogosphere.  Blogs, tweets and Facebook posts couldn’t have the profound influence they have rightfully earned in our new and diverse marketplace of ideas without a robust freedom to debate, to challenge, and even to be outrageous.  So it’s hardly surprising that when a congressional debate about protecting confidential sources mentions blogs, it touches a nerve.

That debate concerned the Free Flow of Information Act, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month on a bipartisan, 13-5 vote.  If passed by Congress, the Act would be the first statute to protect journalists from being forced to identify their confidential sources in federal court.  It would build on the protections of the First Amendment (because no act of Congress, of course, can minimize those rights) and fix a serious bug in our constitutional system – multiple federal courts now have said that the only way for reporters to protect a confidential source is to go to prison indefinitely.  Many of our federal courts have held that the First Amendment simply does not allow a reporter to protect a confidential source.  That’s hardly a solution that reflects our country’s global leadership in free expression.  Although 48 states and the District of Columbia already provide such protection in state courts, Congress has never passed a federal shield law.  So the Judiciary Committee’s vote should give journalists reason for optimism, as Emily Bazelon of Slate has so persuasively described.

So why did debate on the Act touch such a nerve?  Because when the Act creates a new privilege, it has to define who can claim that privilege, and defining “journalist” in our diverse online environment is a sensitive task.  The way the Act accomplishes this delicate balance earned the endorsement of the Online News Association and other non-traditional journalists.  But this issue also prompted some commentators to spread myths about the Act.  For example, Free Press released a paper this month, “Acts of Journalism: Defining Press Freedom in the Digital Age,” which purports to analyze the bill.  Remarkably, however, the paper didn’t discuss the bill itself; indeed it is unclear whether its author has even read the bill.  Other bloggers, drawing from blogs rather than the Act itself, claimed the Act “is an attempt to carve out certain types of journalism that Congress is uncomfortable with,” and that it is “basically a licensing law.”

It’s time for some level-setting here, based on the novel concept of looking at what the Act actually says rather than simply echoing the conspiracy theories about how Congress is slighting the blogosphere, or about how the Act is weak-kneed and won’t protect national security reporters.  These claims are simply myths that don’t stand up to analysis.  In fact, the Act will protect journalists – whether they report on a blog or the New York Times, and is our very best chance to keep the people who are informing us from being treated as criminals for committing journalism.

Myth: The Free Flow of Information Act does not cover bloggers.

Fact: False.  Bloggers who practice journalism will be explicitly covered by the privilege.

Free Press writes that today’s “pamphleteers use iPhones and blogs instead of carbon paper, but their acts of journalism still deserve protection.”  That is, of course, correct, and the Act’s authors agree.  That’s why the bill explicitly includes people who disseminate news via websites, mobile apps, “or other news or information service (whether distributed digitally or otherwise).”  Although many state shield laws cover only traditional media, such as newspapers and broadcasters, the Senate bill is platform-agnostic and covers all journalists, regardless of how they distribute their news.

Some also believe the Act should cover all Americans, under the theory that anyone could be a “citizen journalist” and the First Amendment requires that everyone be given the same rights as journalists.  This is, of course, a classic “poison pill” advocated by those who really want to kill the bill (including some lawmakers who proposed such an amendment but also voted against the Act).  A privilege for everyone would mean a privilege for no one, because Congress would never pass an act that allows every single citizen in the United States to quash a subpoena.  The Act properly focuses on a medium-agnostic way to make sure it covers all those who are practicing journalism, but a suggestion that it cover all Americans is simply a smokescreen for those who would rather see the bill die.

Myth: Rather than attempting to define “journalist,” the bill should focus on defining the practice of journalism.

Fact: That’s exactly what the bill does.

Tricia Todd wrote in a Huffington Post blog that Congress “needs to craft a law that protects acts of journalism rather than targeting the messengers and intimidating sources.”  Similarly, Free Press discusses the danger of drawing “a line between who qualifies as a journalist for the purposes of the reporter’s privilege or shield-law protections.”  As an example, the paper cites the Second Circuit’s decision in von Bulow v. von Bulow, which held that the reporter’s privilege should focus on the journalist’s activities, rather than occupational title.

There’s just one problem with the Free Press criticism: The Free Flow of Information Act does, in fact, focus on people who practice journalism, regardless of their job title.  The bill covers people who gather information “with the primary intent to investigate events and procure material in order to disseminate to the public news or information concerning local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest[.]”  That test comes directly from the Second Circuit’s opinion in von Bulow – the very test that Free Press advocates.

Myth: The bill would require the government to license journalists.

Fact: False.  The argument that “defining a journalist will lead to licensing” is as old as shield laws themselves.  But it’s just false – “journalists” have been defined in other laws dating back to 1900, and federal laws dating back to FOIA.  No “licenses” ever have been created under American law, and none could ever be required for journalism because denying a “license” would be a blatant First Amendment violation.

Rush Limbaugh and other critics have argued that the Free Flow of Information Act would create a de facto licensing system for journalists.  This could never happen because the First Amendment right to publish applies to everyone.  The “government” would not license journalists under the Free Flow of Information Act.  Independent, life-tenured judges would determine whether a journalist is able to claim an additional privilege under the statute to protect a source, but this is not a system of licensing.  It’s a system of determining who can resist an otherwise valid order to testify in federal court, just like courts always have done under the attorney-client privilege, the doctor-patient privilege, and the spousal privilege.

Nonetheless, some believe that once Congress passes a shield law, it will eventually permit only state-approved “journalists” to practice journalism and claim First Amendment protections.  It”s sort of like saying, “if they learn to make metal, they’ll build a bazooka.”  In fact, all of the state shield laws require judges to determine whether an individual is covered, and the federal Freedom of Information Act has defined “news media” for years for purposes of obtaining a fee waiver when requesting federal government records.  None of these laws has led to “licensing” of journalists.  (Any law that would “license” journalists would undoubtedly be unconstitutional and easily struck down.)

Myth: The bill would deprive non-covered journalists of their First Amendment rights.

Fact: False.  The Constitution stands above any law passed by Congress, and this law will not limit the First Amendment.

James Tracy, of Activist Post, wrote that under the Senate bill, “only salaried journalists will be given the free press protections guaranteed to all US citizens by the Constitution.”  Similarly, in a bizarre non-sequitur, the Free Press paper describes non-traditional journalistic activities, as if these activities would somehow be limited by the bill.  In the rare instance where an individual does not receive protection under the statute, that individual retains all of her First Amendment rights.  In fact, Congress does not have the power to pass a bill that would deprive people of their constitutional right to publish.  (And the Senate bill does not require a “salary” to claim its privilege.)

Myth: The bill would not protect national security reporters, because its “national security exception” denies the privilege to any reporting about national security or classified documents.

Fact: False.  The bill’s national security provisions are the most speech-protective to emerge from Congress’s nine years of working on this legislation.

The bill, in fact, would prevent courts or agencies from forcing journalists to disclose sources in national security leak investigations in the vast majority of cases.  The “national security” exception in leak cases is very narrow – it applies only if an independent federal judge finds that the disclosure would materially assist the federal government in preventing or mitigating an act of terrorism or other acts that are reasonably likely to cause significant and articulable harm to national security.  The bill would not require disclosure merely to identify the source for later prosecution.  And the bill explicitly states that the court cannot order disclosure of the source’s identity merely because that source is capable of disclosing more classified information in the future.  This “exception” for national security interests is narrowly tailored, and it will provide significant and important protections for investigative reporting on national security issues.

In all, I recognize that Internet memes are pretty hard to slow down once they begin.  But the meme that Congress is somehow seeking to undermine bloggers and to stop non-traditional journalists from being protected by the First Amendment is simply belied by the facts.  The best remedy might be to do something truly radical – try reading the bill.  And then look at the reporters, such as author and New York Times reporter Jim Risen, who right now are threatened with imprisonment for doing their jobs.  The next step is simple: Support the bill.

Note: Mr. Wimmer represents a 70-member coalition of associations and companies advocating for the Act.  This article appeared in the Huffington Post on Oct. 29, 2013.

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The Revolting Truth

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.


Seeking Shared Values Amid the Scandals

Reflecting our fractured political landscape, much of the discussion of the recent scandals erupting from the Executive Branch of government has been thoroughly politicized.

It’s understandable, but it’s also myopic and deeply troubling for those who believe that our civic life depends crucially on free and unfettered speech, and on the shared understanding by all parties that the First Amendment belongs to everyone, even those with whom we disagree.

Some of the things done by the State Department, the Justice Department, and the IRS – no matter who did, or did not, order them – are patently offensive, and can’t be allowed to stand.

When the State Department attributed the atrocity in Benghazi to a YouTube video, they weren’t just making a mistake, they were trafficking in the all-too-familiar refrain that “the media did it.”

When the Justice Department subpoenaed the phone records of AP reporters in search of a leaker – and in a related matter, when a FOX reporter was accused by the FBI of being a co-conspirator in the leaking of a confidential report – they weren’t just exceeding their constitutional authority, they were criminalizing investigative reporting itself.

And when the IRS decided to slow-walk the applications for tax exempt status of conservative groups, because they were conservative groups, and leaked to progressive media outlets information about conservative groups (as with the “Tea Party” applications delivered to ProPublica), they weren’t just injecting politics into what should be a value-free process, they were poisoning the well of what we as a nation have long considered to be the highest and most protected form of speech: political speech.

None of this can be tolerated.  But more important still is that people and organizations of all persuasions condemn it.  That way lies the preservation of our most precious freedom, and the civic virtue of shared values.  If, in the alternative, people in Congress and the press treat these matters as political footballs, we’ll all be the losers.

Going forward it will be easy to tell which path the players have taken.


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 titled "Seeking shared values amid the IRS, AP scandals" was published online in the May 24, 2013 issue of USA Today, and can be viewed here.

Britain Opts To Censor the Press

With its peerage and royals, Beefeaters and such, Britain in the 21st century sometimes seems like a large theme park, but its historical influence on the USA is clear.  From language to culture, and above all to law, what’s happened in Britain hasn’t stayed in Britain.

Which is precisely why that nation’s new press law, which creates by “royal charter” a speech-suppressing media “watchdog,” is so much to be rued.  Briefly stated, the watchdog will have the power to oblige participating media to post apologies and take complaints into arbitration, thereby creating a system of government regulation of the press that hasn’t happened there since 1695.

It is commonly said that the tracks that led to this train wreck were laid by the misbehavior of Britain’s tabloid newspapers, and there’s truth in that.  Caught in the act after years of hacking into private e-mail and phone calls, and bribing public officials, the tabloids acted outside the bounds not just of ethical journalism, but of the law.

But the better explanation for why the British have now endorsed regulation of the press (rather than relying just on the enforcement of criminal laws already on the books) is because that country has no First Amendment. That, and also because there (as here?) there exist large numbers of people who value political correctness, and political advantage, over freedom of speech.

Indeed, though the new press rules are said to have become inevitable given the failures of Britain’s (recently extinct) Press Complaints Commission (PCC), another way of looking at it is to say that the very existence of the PCC inadvertently cleared the way for the more intrusive regulations.

Some years ago there existed in the United States a National News Council (NNC), whose charter was similar to the PCC.  It failed to take root for many reasons, but perhaps most notably because the New York Times’ Abe Rosenthal wisely refused to cooperate with it.  Rosenthal’s concern was that the NNC would fail to satisfy press critics, and that some sort of government program would then be invited to succeed it.

The British have long been accustomed to a significant degree of governmental oversight of their broadcasting companies’ content through what is called Ofcom (Office of Communications), but until now the print media have been spared that oversight.

Though billed by its parliamentary sponsors as a voluntary arrangement, the terms of the new press regulation carry onerous potential liabilities, specifically including “exemplary damages” in court, for media companies that don’t join the quango.  This may even include some companies that are based elsewhere. Indeed, one of the most powerful criticisms – from such as the New York Times and the Committee To Protect Journalists – is that the regulation assumes authority over bloggers and websites, large and small, foreign and domestic.

“In an attempt to rein in its reckless tabloid newspapers,” said the New York Times, “Britain’s three main political parties this week agreed to impose unwieldy regulations on the news media that would chill free speech and threaten the survival of small publishers and Internet sites.”

But the most compelling and powerful criticism has come from The Spectator, the British publication said to be the oldest continuously published magazine in the English language.  As Nick Cohen wrote on March 18:

The regulator will cover “relevant publishers.”  If they do not pay for its services and submit to its fines and rulings … they could face exemplary damages in the courts.  It is not just the old (and dying) newspapers, which the state defines as “relevant publishers” but “websites containing news related material.”

What “news related” material can get you into trouble?  It turns out to be the essential debates of a free society.  Dangerous topics to write about include “news or information about current affairs” and “opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs.”  Any free country should want the widest possible range of opinions about current affairs.  As of tonight, Britain does not. 

There will be a temptation among many in this country to look past what the British have done as nothing more than the antics, as someone once put it, of an exhausted stock; not to worry about anything similar happening here.  And there’s some truth in that.  Because of our First Amendment and strong case law in defense of it, such regulation is unlikely in this country.

But it’s worth remembering that this happened in Britain at the hands of parliament and that we too have a “parliament,” and regulatory agencies, and that, as in Britain, we have organizations, like the cynically misnamed Free Press, that are constantly pushing for an expansion of government oversight of the media.

Thanks to the Founding Fathers we have some additional protection against the kind of thing that’s just happened in Britain, but vigilance is required, now more than ever.


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 titled "Keep U.K. media rules out of U.S." appeared in the print and online editions of USA Today on April 23, 2013, and can be viewed here.

Internet Freedom in Peril

Not for the first time, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell has issued a clarion call to all those interested in maintaining a free and open Internet.

In testimony before the House last week, Comm. McDowell made the following points:

(1)  Proponents of multilateral intergovernmental control of the Internet are patient and persistent incrementalists who will never relent until their ends are achieved;

(2)  The recently concluded World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) ended the era of an international consensus to keep intergovernmental hands off of the Internet in dramatic fashion, thus radically twisting the one-way ratchet of even more governmental regulation in this space;

(3)  Those who cherish Internet freedom must immediately redouble their efforts to prevent further expansions of government control of the Internet as the pivotal 2014 Plenipotentiary meeting of the International Telecommunications Union quickly draws near;

(4)  Merely saying “no” to any changes is – quite obviously – a losing proposition; therefore, we should work to offer alternate proposals such as improving the long-standing and highly successful, non-governmental multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance to include those who may feel disenfranchised; and

(5)  Last year’s bipartisan and unanimous congressional resolutions clearly opposing expansions of international powers over the Internet reverberated throughout the world and had a positive and constructive effect.

Once again, a cogent and persuasive presentation by the FCC’s MFC (Most Favored Commissioner). Read the whole of his testimony here.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.