J. Peder Zane

Zane: First Amendment freedoms must be protected

I’m with the left on this one. Government attempts to muzzle UNC Professor Gene Nichol for the harsh, ad hominem attacks he launches against Republicans in his columns are outrageous.

Nichol has not been censored: He can still say what he wants. But conservatives who downplay the mild restrictions imposed on the law professor – he must give his bosses a heads-up about his column and add a disclaimer that he doesn’t speak for UNC – miss the point. Not all attacks on speech are equal. When the government is connected to them, they are almost always dangerous.

It is because we grant the government such tremendous power – especially to take our property and liberty – that we need the First Amendment to protect citizens against our leaders and their allies. The Nichol case reminds us that officials too easily conflate their personal views and needs with those of the state and nation. Evidently some in the GOP believed they had the right to pressure Nichol because taxpayer dollars support his UNC salary. I am not a big fan of the slippery slope, but this is the first step toward totalitarianism. Such efforts must always be nipped in the bud.

This kerfuffle should be a footnote before long. But it can have lasting benefits if it leads those on the right to reconsider their defense of Nichol’s opponents. I can’t think of anything more at odds with the principle of limited government. Even more important, I hope those on the left who have made impassioned pleas in defense of Nichol lay aside their partisan concerns and apply those principles to more direct government attacks on free speech.

If they do, they should be incensed by IRS efforts to silence and harass conservative groups before the 2012 election. Although the White House has not been implicated in this ugly campaign of censorship, we know that leading Democrat senators demanded that the IRS target tea party groups seeking nonprofit status. Given the long history of presidents from FDR to Nixon who used the IRS as a cudgel, this effort is especially frightening. It is a sad comment on our politics that the left’s indignation is directed at Republicans seeking answers, not the IRS.

I don’t expect liberals to stop denouncing Citizens United and other cases that have lifted restrictions on political donations. There is high principle at stake. Big money does distort the political process. But partisan interest is a stronger motivation. Democrats hate these rulings because they think the rulings hurt them; Republicans celebrate the rulings because they think they benefit. Perhaps the Nichol case can lead us to find ways to address the problem that do not require the government to abridge free speech.

If we muzzle the Koch brothers today, why not the Sierra Club tomorrow? Why not the media – outlets increasingly owned by vast corporations – the day after tomorrow? Certainly we can agree that Sen. Harry Reid’s incessant denunciations of the Koch brothers as “unpatriotic” for exercising their constitutional rights are chilling. The same is true of Republican officeholders who denounce “union thugs.” I can say it. You can say it. Powerful government officials should not.

The left should also re-examine its push to force the disclosure of contributors to political entities. The NAACP opposed similar efforts in the 1950s, fearing their supporters would be exposed to persecution. Today, some supporters of bans on same-sex marriage have been punished for their political views, most famously Brendan Eich, who was forced to resign as Mozilla’s CEO after his $1,000 donation to California’s 2008 anti-gay marriage ballot measure was trumpeted on the web.

Richard Kim, executive editor of the leftist Nation magazine, said last week on MSNBC that “some of my gay activist friends” were eager to target all 6,500 Californians who gave as much or more as Eich. “I asked this facetiously, and people were like, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s find out where those people live.’ ” I applaud Kim for sharing the story and agree that is scary.

If the Nichol case helps us think more deeply about government limits on speech, it should also make us consider whether our own language encourages the free exchange of ideas. Nichol has every right to compare Gov. Pat McCrory to segregationist governor George Wallace and to claim North Carolina’s GOP leaders are creating a new “confederacy.” Such falsehoods are not only disturbing because they come from a scholar who is paid to explore the nuances of ideas and the complexities of history but also because their ultimate intent is to delegitimize and silence his opponents.

Almost all Americans love our country because of the freedom it provides. In our stridently partisan times, we can find common ground by standing together against those who threaten the inalienable rights we cherish.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.