How dare she silence citizens?Comments (8)
By Ira Glasser / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Friday, April 12, 2013, 4:14 AM
Joe Marino/New York Daily News
Christine Quinn at a mayoral forum this week.
A group of citizens bands together and takes out an ad criticizing a candidate running for mayor. The candidate who is the subject of their criticism — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn — is stung by it. She believes it falsely characterizes her positions.
But instead of just responding, which of course she has ample resources to do, she takes steps to prohibit the critical ad from appearing. First, her campaign’s attorney threatens the cable company on whose network the ad ran, suggesting that it could lose its license if it continues to run the ad. Then Quinn writes to all the other mayoral candidates, asking them to join her in condemning and rejecting all such ads by independent citizens or groups of citizens operating outside of the city’s campaign financing system.
In other words, only the candidates themselves and established media outlets, like newspapers, can offer their opinions in elections. Citizens should not have a voice. Or if they do have a voice, it should only be muted, never amplified on the airwaves.
What Quinn is proposing is exactly what the founders of our country tried to avoid when they passed the First Amendment, guaranteeing all Americans — not just candidates and newspapers — the right of free speech.
In 1798, only seven years after the First Amendment became law, Congress passed a law making it a crime to criticize the President. The First Amendment prohibited passage of such a statute, but Congress did it anyway. They got away with it for a few years before the law was repealed after a new President was elected on a wave of political protest.
Brazen violations like this continued to take place periodically over the years. The latest opportunity for repression of free speech has happened under the cover of so-called campaign finance “reform.” In 1972, the ACLU (a nonpartisan, nonprofit corporation that never takes a position on elections) published an ad criticizing President Nixon for opposing racial integration of public schools.
Criticizing public officials on various civil liberties issues was its job, and it did so all the time, as do many organizations on many issues. But since 1972 was an election year, the government wrote a letter to the newspaper that intended to publish the ad warning it that it faced prosecution under campaign finance law if it did so.
The ACLU and the newspaper had to sue in federal court to strike down that use of the law — and the court ruled that the right to publish the ad was protected by the First Amendment.
In subsequent years, many organizations had to go to court when they wanted to comment on public issues — for example, for or against abortion rights — and criticize public officials but were prevented from doing so by various campaign finance laws.
Then, in 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that although laws could be passed limiting the size of contributions to candidates, the First Amendment barred the government from limiting what citizens themselves could say independently. Citizens United, the unjustly reviled 2010 Supreme Court ruling, affirmed that right for unions and corporations as well — including nonprofit corporations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the American Conservative Union.
These are the rulings Christine Quinn appears to oppose when she suggests that independent citizen speech should be “rejected.”
Who does she think she is? Quinn can reject contributions to her own campaign from sources she doesn’t like. But she cannot reject what I or any other New Yorker wants to say about her. Nor can she “reject” my right to band together with others of like mind and voice our opinions. That’s what free speech is, and it’s the oldest tradition of liberty we have.
Richard Nixon infamously sought to target and punish his critics. Rudy Giuliani set a city record for being sued for violating the First Amendment. We don’t need another mayor with this little respect for our traditions of free speech, or with so little regard for the First Amendment that she would respond to criticism by trying to repress it.
Glasser was executive director of the ACLU from 1978 to 2001.