Remember the First Amendment?

What psychologists call the association of ideas offers some amusing conjunctions.  When I read that Hillary Clinton, aging presidential candidate, was considering a constitutional amendment to circumvent the First Amendment, one of the first things that popped into my head was an episode from the classic comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes."  It’s the one that begins with Calvin addressing his dad: “Hey Dad, remember our car?” “Why sure,” he says, lying on the couch and reading a book. Then the penny drops. “Wait a minute,” he snaps in the next frame. “What do you mean ‘Remember?’” Yuck, yuck, yuck.

It’s pretty funny in a comic strip. The comedy, if there be comedy, is of a decidedly darker hue when it comes to the multifarious assaults on free speech we witness all around us. Remember the First Amendment? That’s not so funny, is it?  I’ve had frequent occasion to dilate on this problem, both in this space and in The New Criterion, here, for example, and here, here, and here. The assault is multifaceted. On campuses Muslim student organizations, abetted by a radical Palestinian front group called the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), regularly endeavor to shut down free speech whenever any affront to Islamic sensitivity is discovered or invented. The indispensable Investigative Project on Terrorism had a characteristically incisive piece about this front in the war against liberty just yesterday under the title “Free Speech Losing to Campus Thought Police.” But CAIR would get nowhere if college administrators told them to buzz off. They don’t. Nor do they intervene to insist on a little sanity when other students get into the victimhood sweepstakes. This month in The New Criterion, I report on an egregious violation of free speech at Marquette University, which, like most Jesuit institutions these days, has only a tenuous relationship with Catholic orthodoxy but which hasn't forgotten its inquisitorial skills.

I touch on these other assaults on free speech to provide a context for Hillary Clinton’s foray into the battle to shut people up (a procedure, it is worth noting, that is often a harbinger of a battle to lock people up). The constitutional amendment that Hillary Clinton told the world she would consider would be directed against the Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United.  “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system,” quoth Hillary, “and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all, even if that takes a constitutional amendment.”

“Unaccountable money”: what do you suppose that means? It is sometimes said that the Citizens United case had to do with contributions to political candidates.  The Left hates the decision, it is said, because it removes limits on the amount of money that rich individuals and corporations can contribute to candidates.  But in fact, it has nothing to do with individual contributions to candidates.  That remains $2,600 per year. The Citizens United case had to do with free speech in a much broader sense.  At issue was a movie critical of Hillary Clinton that the conservative activist group wished to distribute. The U.S. government attempted to stop the distribution of the movie.

Think about that for a moment.  Then get your mind around this: what the government argued was that it had the right to stop the distribution of a movie or the publication of a book if they were made or sold by a corporation and could be interpreted as having a political message.

Worried yet? Justice Samuel Alito was.  The government’s case was argued by Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart. “What's your answer,” Alito asked Stewart, “to [the] point that there isn't any constitutional difference between the distribution of this movie on video [on] demand and providing access on the internet, providing DVDs, either through a commercial service or maybe in a public library, [or] providing the same thing in a book? Would the Constitution permit the restriction of all of those as well?" As Bradley Smith noted in an article on the case in National Affairs, Stewart responded that the law would even require banning a book that made the same points as the Citizens United video. “By the time Stewart's turn at the podium was over,” Smith noted,

he had told Justice Anthony Kennedy that the government could restrict the distribution of books through Amazon's digital book reader, Kindle; responded to Justice David Souter that the government could prevent a union from hiring a writer to author a political book; and conceded to Chief Justice John Roberts that a corporate publisher could be prohibited from publishing a 500-page book if it contained even one line of candidate advocacy.

This is what the constitutional amendment that Hillary Clinton envisions would accomplish. “Unaccountable money” means money that the government does not control. It is what used to be called your money. Remember that?  It was a nice detail—almost as funny, in its way, as that Calvin and Hobbes cartoon I mentioned—that Clinton announced her intention to attack the First Amendment on a college campus and that students who were anywhere near her path were locked in their classrooms while Queen Hillary was on campus.

One of the epigraphs to Friedrich von Hayek’s great book The Road to Serfdom comes from the philosopher David Hume. “It is seldom,” Hume wrote, “that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.”  At first, anyway, it leeches out slowly. People with unpopular opinions are disinvited from speaking at college campuses. Politicians suggest reintroducing laws against “blasphemy” (which politicians? Hint: her initials are HRC). Then you can’t distribute a movie or publish a book critical of your masters. Where does it end? Hayek told us in the title to his great book. How far down that road will we have to travel before we wake up to the peril that confronts us?