By SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL
One thing that has always distinguished America is the enthusiasm with which its citizens have organized around issues they believe in. Alexis de Tocqueville observed this more than 175 years ago, “In no country in the world,” De Tocqueville wrote, “has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America.”
Recent events, however, suggest that this principle is under serious threat — not only from some left-wing groups, which have resorted to intimidation to grind their critics into submission, but by an administration that has used the tools of government to do the same.
These things are not only unbecoming of a sitting president, they threaten the very character of our nation. That’s why it’s time for Americans to recognize this threat for what it is, unite around the First Amendment and fight back. Some principles in American life are non-negotiable. The inviolability of Americans’ right to free speech is one of them.
The Obama administration’s most prominent effort to limit speech is the so-called DISCLOSE Act, a bill that grew out of the president’s public, and unseemly, rebuke of the Supreme Court in early 2010. This proposed law, an attempt to get around the court’s decision in Citizens United, would compel grass-roots groups to disclose the names of their supporters.
Dozens of tea party-affiliated groups across the country learned earlier this year what it was like to draw the attention of the speech police when they received a lengthy questionnaire from the Internal Revenue Service, demanding attendance lists, meeting transcripts and donor information.
As the leader of one organization described it: “[Groups like ours] either drown … in unnecessary paper work … or you survive, and give them everything they want, only to be hung.”
In addition, the head of one national advocacy group has released documents showing that a staunch critic on the left, who is also a co-chairman of President Barack Obama’s reelection committee, had obtained his group’s confidential IRS information. The only way it could have been made public, the group’s director said, is if someone from inside the IRS had leaked it.
But the administration’s troubling view of free speech was perhaps best summed up just this week, when Obama’s top political adviser said that if the president is reelected in November, a top priority could be a constitutional amendment to change the First Amendment.
The courts have said Congress doesn’t have the authority to muzzle political speech. So the president plans to silence his opponents by amending the First Amendment itself. Now, this is radicalism.
No individual or group in this country should have to face harassment or intimidation, or incur crippling expenses, defending themselves against their own government, simply because that government doesn’t like the message they’re advocating.
If you can’t convince people of the wisdom of your policies, then you should come up with better arguments. But, sadly, a growing number of people on the left, and now in the government itself, appear to have concluded that they can’t win on the merits. So they’ve resorted to bullying and intimidation. The potential consequences are grave.
It’s hard to imagine a more broadly accepted and celebrated proposition in America today than the fact that, as Americans, we are free to speak our minds openly, without fear of punishment or reprisal from government authorities. But for U.S. politicians, it is a temptation always to be resisted. Because if all political speech isn’t protected, none is.
If we can’t expect the president himself to do so, who can we?
A great freedom is at stake. It affects us all. That’s why it’s so important that Americans unite against these tactics, wherever we see them.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is the Senate Republican leader.