Sarah Palin & First Amendment 101

Sarah Palin, First Amendment Scholar

While much of the nation is in an uproar over Sarah Palin’s invocation of “blood libel” in a recorded response, distributed online today, to the weekend Arizona shootings, her talk also demonstrates a gross misrepresentation of the First Amendment and its protections.

In a talk that at first sounds like a Meiklejohnian love letter to freedom of expression, Palin argued Wednesday that:

No one should be deterred from speaking up and speaking out in peaceful dissent. And we certainly must not be deterred by those who do evil and call it good. And we will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults.

That’s consistent with the right’s defensiveness of its extremist rhetoric: Liberals want to silence us and shut us down. One can imagine only a brief period of time before the Thought Police starts shipping brave, dissenting conservatives off to concentration camps for re-education. (Just to think of it, when will the conservative Daniel Ellsberg step up and be rung up on an Espionage Act charge?)

Let’s add the voice of Tea Partier and defeated Senate candidate Sharron Angle of Nevada to the chorus of oppressed, censored conservatives:

Expanding the context of the attack to blame and to infringe upon the people’s Constitutional liberties is both dangerous and ignorant. The irresponsible assignment of blame to me, Sarah Palin or the Tea Party movement by commentators and elected officials puts all who gather to redress grievances in danger.

Both Palin and Angle are swatting at straw men. The First Amendment protects citizens from censorship by government and punishment after the fact for their expression of ideas. No pundit, activist, political figure or leader of any movement has been silenced in this manner. Other than opportunistic grandstanding by Rep. Bob Brady, D-Penn., no one has suggested criminalizing eliminationist rhetoric. No one’s suggested the creation of civil penalties for such speech.

What Palin, Angle and others don’t get is this: The First Amendment protects you from government interference in speech, but it doesn’t protect you from being criticized for your ideas or their expression. Indeed, those who criticize the use of crosshairs in political advertising or the suggestion that Second Amendment remedies should be available to patriots are exercising their own First Amendment rights. Their providing the rest of the selection in the marketplace of ideas.

When you speak out on any subject and express any view, the First Amendment protects you. When governments try to stop you, it’s unconstitutional. My own view is that the Constitution should similarly protect you when powerful private groups organize to punish you for your speech: Such was the case, for example, with the campaign of repression against the Dixie Chicks in 2003 for daring to criticize George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq War. It turns out that the campaign was hardly a spontaneous expression of ordinary-citizen rage but rather actively cultivated by corporate radio powerhouse Clear Channel.

When I advised a student newspaper for 16 years, undergraduates often fretted when administrators expressed disapproval of what they published. Sometimes the student journalists mistook the criticism as censorship. As their adviser, I told them I’d always defend their right to publish what they wanted. But, I also told them, don’t expect anyone to love you for what you publish. And don’t expect them to not criticize you.

That’s the lesson the Sarah Palins, Sharron Angles and Rush Limbaughs need to learn.

That the free exchange of ideas is “indeed essential to the nature of a free state,” as William Blackstone wrote nearly 250 years ago, is a given. But that’s never meant that anyone gets a free pass in public opinion for whatever it is they say or whatever methods they use to say it.

The rhetoric of modern conservatism is full of allegations of oppression by the left. It’s time we call them on it.

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