I like to introduce the topic of free speech with an anecdote about my children. I have three kids, ages twelve, nine, and five. They are your average, normal kids—which means they live to annoy the heck out of each other.
Last fall, sitting around the dinner table, the twelve-year-old was doing a particularly good job at this with his youngest sister. She finally grew so frustrated that she said, “Oliver, you need to stop talking—forever.” This inspired a volley of protests about free speech rights, and ended with them yelling “shut up” at each other. Desperate to stop the fighting and restore order, I asked each of them in turn to tell me what they thought “free speech” meant.
The twelve-year-old went first. A serious and academic child, he gave a textbook definition that included “Congress shall make no law,” an evocation of James Madison, a tutorial on the Bill of Rights, and warnings about “certain exceptions for public safety and libel.” I was happy to know the private-school fees were yielding something.
The nine-year-old went next. A rebel convinced that everyone ignores her, she said that she had no idea what “public safety” or “libel” were, but that “it doesn’t matter, because free speech means there should never be any restrictions on anything that anybody says, anytime or anywhere.” She added that we could all start by listening more to what she says.
Then it was the five-year-old’s turn. You could tell she’d been thinking hard about her answer. She fixed both her brother and sister with a ferocious stare and said: “Free speech is that you can say what you want—as long as I like it.”
It was at this moment that I had one of those sudden insights as a parent. I realized that my oldest was a constitutional conservative, my middle child a libertarian, and my youngest a socialist with totalitarian tendencies.
With that introduction, my main point today is that we’ve experienced over the past eight years a profound shift in our political culture, a shift that has resulted in a significant portion of our body politic holding a five-year-old’s view of free speech. What makes this shift notable is that unlike most changes in politics, you can trace it back to one day: January 21, 2010, the day the Supreme Court issued its Citizens United ruling and restored free speech rights to millions of Americans.
For nearly 100 years up to that point, both sides of the political aisle had used campaign finance laws—I call them speech laws—to muzzle their political opponents. The Right used them to push unions out of elections. The Left used them to push corporations out of elections. These speech laws kept building and building until we got the mack daddy of them all—McCain-Feingold. It was at this point the Supreme Court said, “Enough.” A five-judge majority ruled that Congress had gone way too far in violating the Constitution’s free speech protections.
The Citizens United ruling was viewed as a blow for freedom by most on the Right, which had in recent years gotten some free speech religion, but as an unmitigated disaster by the Left. Over the decades, the Left had found it harder and harder to win policy arguments, and had come to rely more and more on these laws to muzzle political opponents. And here was the Supreme Court knocking back those laws, reopening the floodgates for non-profits and corporations to speak freely again in the public arena.
In the Left’s view, the ruling couldn’t have come at a worse time. Remember the political environment in 2010. Democrats were experiencing an enormous backlash against the policies and agenda of the Obama administration. There were revolts over auto bailouts, stimulus spending, and Obamacare. The Tea Party movement was in full swing and vowing to use the midterm elections to effect dramatic change. Democrats feared an electoral tidal wave would sweep them out of Congress.
In the weeks following the Citizens United ruling, the Left settled on a new strategy. If it could no longer use speech laws against its opponents, it would do the next best thing—it would threaten, harass, and intimidate its opponents out of participation. It would send a message: conservatives choosing to exercise their constitutional rights will pay a political and personal price.