Michael Bloomberg, Tireless Champion of Civil Liberties

Sure, he took away New Yorkers' right to massive sodas. But when it comes to our most important civil right, Bloomberg does better than most politicians.

Paul Hackett/Reuters

London Mayor Boris Johnson is skeptical of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's crusade against trans fat and 32-ounce soft drinks. "I'm not certain I would try to tell the people of London about the dimensions of their Coke portions," he told the New York Times last week. And, he added, "I didn't know what trans fats were. I thought it had something to do with transsexuals, obese transsexuals, or something."

Cute, I guess. But don't confuse Johnson with a critic of the nanny state. While he declines to protect Londoners from junk food, he doesn't hesitate to protect them from offensive speech. It's not surprising. He presides over the capital city of a censorious nation. British law criminalizes presumptively hateful speech, and I imagine that many cheered when Johnson ordered the London bus system not to post anti-gay advertisements for "reparative therapy" sponsored by conservative Christian groups.

"It is clearly offensive to suggest that being gay is an illness that someone recovers from," Johnson declared. "I am not prepared to have that suggestion driven around London on our buses."

Most politicians treat the First Amendment like a curmudgeonly uncle they're forced to invite to Thanksgiving dinner. Not Bloomberg.

In other words, he was not amused. So I suggest, perhaps offensively, that Johnson stay on his high horse and off the buses and subways in New York, where his friend Michael Bloomberg knows better than to perish a thought. When the MTA was under court order to accept a series of provocative anti-Muslim ads in subway stations, Bloomberg shrugged: "I assume [they'll] do what the courts ordered them to do."

When other big-city, pro-gay-rights mayors threatened to bar Chick-fil-A from their domains, Bloomberg schooled them on free speech: "You really don't want to ask political beliefs or religious beliefs before you issue a permit. That's just not government's job."

When 10 members of the New York City Council threatened to withdraw funding from Brooklyn College because it dared to sponsor a discussion of boycotts and sanctions against Israel, Bloomberg snorted, "If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea."

He made my day. We so rarely hear such a clear, cutting defense of free speech from an elected official (even a super-rich one who doesn't face another election). Usually, when controversial speech is at issue, politicians don't defend freedom so much as acknowledge it, prefacing their acknowledgement with apologies for its offensiveness. They treat the First Amendment like a curmudgeonly uncle they're forced to invite to Thanksgiving dinner.

Not Bloomberg. He presents free speech as an essential democratic virtue and treats government interference with it as a vice. He didn't condemn threats against Brooklyn College grudgingly, just because the First Amendment required him to do so. He condemned them because of their deleterious effects. "The last thing we need is for members of our City Council or State Legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run and base funding decisions on the political views of professors," he said. "I can't think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students."

Bloomberg can be patronizing and plutocratic, I know. You can criticize his muscling of a third term and complain about his ban on oversized sodas and smoking in city parks. Bemoan his bike lanes and the pedestrian mall at Herald Square, or mock his interest in banning styrofoamDeplore his defense of repressive stop-and-frisk policies and his tactics in evicting occupiers from Zuccotti Park. (Protesters have no right to appropriate a public space indefinitely, 24/7, but they retain rights to due process and protection from police brutality.) Question his appreciation of the Second Amendment.

Still, Bloomberg remains the rare politician who understands and values the First.

Yes, his record on important civil liberties is mixed. From left or right, Bloomberg deserves, at most, two cheers. But, in general, he's derided more for his public-health lectures and bans than for his forthright defense of our first freedom. This is pop libertarianism at its pettiest and least protective of basic liberties. The nanny state is annoying; the speech-police state is one we should fear.