Tiananmen Square and the importance of the First Amendment

Twenty years ago today, the People’s Liberation Army of China began their assault on the peaceful protesters of Tiananmen square, guilty of no crime other than that of holding a view contrary to the “authorized” ideology of those in power.

Outside of my office, positioned in such a way that every time I look up from my desk I see it, is a picture apparently taken the following day (the caption says June 5, 1989). The picture, famous around the world, is a picture of a man standing in a road, with tanks rolling towards him.

I keep this picture in CCP’s offices to remind us, and make the point to our visitors, of just how terrible it can be to live in a country without a First Amendment, without the right to challenge those in power, and without the opportunity to speak one’s mind on issues of the day free of government barrier and sanction.

While there is little to suggest that the self-styled campaign finance “reform” community is eager to roll tanks over those who dare to dissent from the approved political orthodoxy and ideology that most “reformers” share, the fundamental premises of “reformers” is little different than that of the men who ordered the soldiers into Tiananmen Square, ordered them to open fire on unarmed civilians who thought they should be able to speak freely and dissent from the party line.

That premise is simple: We represent “the people,” and those that dissent from our views are enemies of the people to be suppressed.

Listen to a “reformer,” really listen sometime. Most will invariably get to something along the lines of “if we can just get big money out of politics, we can … get our favored policies enacted.” The policies they propose to be enacted once “reform” is achieved often address issues like health care, climate change, taxes, labor organizing, and many other contentious matters. This is best typified by a statement by Bill Moyers, often cited by “reformers,” who said that “[campaign finance reform]… is the reform that makes all other reforms finally possible.”

Buried within this argument is the perspective that in America, there is little real, legitimate disagreement or debate among citizens over what to do on these issues, and that if only “big money” can be driven from the process – meaning, if only we can silence those narrow and nefarious few who dissent from what real Americans want – then Congress would be able to quickly and easily adopt the necessary laws that are overwhelmingly demanded by the American people.

To believe this is not just to ignore that Americans wildly and passionately disagree with one another over what the best policies to be pursued are, but to fundamentally de-legitimize the idea of dissent. Accordingly, there is only one “true” way, the “will of the people,” and the “reformers” know what it is and know that anyone threatening to persuade or inform the American people otherwise must be stopped. Usually, “corporations” and the “wealthy,” although sometimes they’re a little more specific – trial lawyers, oil companies, unions, the “radical right” – just about everybody has been labeled a “special interest” that must be driven from the temple of democracy in the name of “reform.”

“Reform,” then, is not about stopping “corruption,” or somehow perfecting democracy, unless you really believe the “Democratic” part in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka North Korea). It’s about isolating and limiting certain voices in the public square, those they deem illegitimate and contrary to the “public interest.”

A tad hyperbolic, some may say, to compare the “reform” community with the Chinese leaders who ordered the tanks to roll 20 years ago? Perhaps, although as I said it’s the underlying premise that is identical, not the willingness to order the massacre of peaceful protesters.

But three recent things that have come to my attention drive the point home to me, how our current regulations of political speech threaten to stifle Americans freedom to dissent from some government-approved orthodoxy, and how some wish to move even further along this path.

In West Virginia, Clarksburg City Councilman Martin Shaffer has been arrested. His crime? He apparently provided information to a citizen regarding city council activity, who then included it in a newsletter mailed to 4,000 fellow citizens of Clarksburg. West Virginia law states that “”No person may publish, issue or circulate, or cause to be published, issued or circulated, any anonymous letter, circular, placard, radio or television advertisement or other publication supporting or aiding the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate.”

In Connecticut, as I wrote about yesterday, the Catholic Church is being investigated for failing to register as a lobbyist before holding a rally on the statehouse steps and urging parishioners to contact their legislators regarding bill that would have forcibly changed the way the Bridgeport Archdiocese was governed.

Finally, in the wake of the abominable murder of abortion provider George Tiller in Kansas, some are calling for the prosecution of talk show hosts like Bill O’Reilly who had sharply criticized Tiller for his practices. Some diarists and posters at DailyKos, a popular left-leaning blog, have suggested that the First Amendment doesn’t protect those who engage in”hate speech,” which they seem to define as anyone who sharply criticizes certain groups of individuals. Others demand that “false” statements be prohibited, which means any opinion they don’t agree with.

These are the ways that speech in America is under attack, through regulation and application of seemingly innocent laws (who opposes “reform,” after all?). Not as directly, not as horrifyingly as it was on a June day in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, but under attack for exactly the same reason – because some people don’t believe other people have a right to speak and be heard. And chances are, unless you toe their party line, you’re among those who shouldn’t be heard.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.