Forget the NRA, We Need a Free-Speech Association

Wanted: A powerful national pressure group that fights to make the First Amendment equal, at least, to the Second


Download one or two images of child porn and you risk going to prison for years. But feel free to purchase multiple firearms and rounds of ammunition instead. In America, virtual possession of forbidden images is generally considered much more dangerous than actual possession of your own personal arsenal. Once, anti-porn feminists were ridiculed for equating the virtual "assault" of pornography with the violence of actual assaults, but I guess they're laughing last.

Harsh restrictions on free speech -- sexual and political -- increase, while mild restrictions on weaponry decrease. Second Amendment advocates have even sought to suppress First Amendment rights: in Florida, a recently invalidated state law barred doctors from talking about guns with their patients.

We need a Free Speech Association, an FSA, with the commitment and clout of the NRA, but we're unlikely to see one emerge anytime soon, from right or left. Several small advocacy groups, like the National Coalition Against Censorship, are devoted to First Amendment rights; the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a fierce defender of speech rights on college campuses. But more powerful lobbying groups on both sides tend to protect their own speech rights, while ignoring or endeavoring to suppress the rights of others.

Anti-abortion activists pass laws compelling doctors to warn women of the questionable or imaginary dangers of abortion, while opposing laws requiring duplicitous pregnancy crisis centers to inform women that they don't provide referrals for abortions or contraceptive services. On their planet, the First Amendment compels the dissemination of falsehoods while barring the dissemination of truth.

Meanwhile, on Planet Progressive, anti-bullying crusaders regard the First Amendment as a national civility code, protecting presumptively vulnerable people and groups (the good guys) from the rudeness of presumptively powerful bad guys. (Bullying violates the First Amendment by "silencing" its targets, they say.) The ACLU has endorsed expansive anti-bullying initiatives, partly in deference to the gay rights movement. Focused on ending the bullying of gay teens and promoting marriage equality, gay rights activists have become particularly hostile to free speech. "Does Gay, Inc. Believe in Free Speech?" Steven Thrasher recently asked in the Village Voice.

Obviously not. The Human Rights Campaign praised Boston Mayor Tom Menino for threatening to bar Chick-fil-A from his fiefdom because of management's opposition to gay marriage. But even Menino, publicly chastised by the Boston Globe, tried to qualify his remarks, as the Globe reported:

"Originally, I said I would do everything I can to stop them. And that was mostly using the bully pulpit of being mayor of the city and getting public support," Menino said in an interview at City Hall. "But I didn't say I would not allow them to go for permits or anything like that. I just said we would do everything we can, bully-pulpit wise."

This is not exactly a recognition, much less an endorsement of free speech. Menino cited his own First Amendment rights to protest: "I have feelings. ... I have my First Amendment rights also. I'm expressing them." But in his capacity as a public official, he doesn't exactly have rights; he has power -- limited by the rights of the people.

The mayor's use of his bully pulpit to discourage a business from moving to Boston by arousing public opposition and consumer boycotts may not violate the letter of the First Amendment, but it surely violates the spirit. It is, however, one form of bullying that "Gay, Inc" supports. We need a powerful, national Free Speech Association that fights back and makes the First Amendment equal, at least, to the Second.