David Brown was imprisoned for 18 months because he demonstrated against rising taxes. Author James Callendar spent nine months in jail for writing a book critical of the government. Newspaper editor Benjamin Franklin Bache was arrested for criticizing the president but died before his trial, while printer Anthony Haswell spent two months in jail for republishing passages from Bache’s writings.
These men did not live in some Third World dictatorship. They lived in the United States during one of the darkest periods of our history; a time in which freedom of speech was restricted by the federal government following passage of the Sedition Act of 1798. Given recent events, it appears Democrats are keen on recreating some of that oppression. In an accelerating campaign to silence the voices of those with whom they disagree, the administration of President Obama and members of his party in Congress have undertaken the most audacious effort in more than 200 years to squelch those who dare to disagree.
The most recent example comes in the form of a proposed amendment to the Constitution, S.J. Res. 19, which would rewrite the IRSt-amendment">First Amendment by giving government the power to restrict free speech in the political arena. Supported exclusively by Democrats, it serves as an end-around to long-standing law that says unequivocally that money is the same as speech and would restrict how much money individuals, organizations and candidates may raise and spend in elections.
Concurrent with this is the ongoing abuse of power by certain members of Congress who are using their taxpayer-funded offices as a platform for attacking private citizens and pressuring government agencies to begin criminal actions against people who exercise their First Amendment rights. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has repeatedly taken to the Senate floor, the Senate Gallery and other venues to vilify Charles and David Koch for taking positions on issues that differ from his.
But if one agrees with Reid, the senator is gracious enough to praise that person by way of his Senate office. Such is the case with Tom Steyer, a billionaire Democrat and environmental activist who has pledged to spend $100 million to fight “climate change,” in the 2014 election cycle. Coincidental with Steyer's financial pledge, Reid led more than half of his fellow Democrat senators in a nearly 15-hour-long gabfest on the Senate floor promoting Steyer's pet issue.
No less outrageous is how Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., pressured the IRS and the Department of Justice to commence criminal investigations of certain tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups that were abiding by the law while exercising their right to free speech.
The spark that lit this fuse of intimidation, coercion and abuse was struck before the 2012 elections, when the IRS began a systematic campaign of targeting certain organizations seeking tax-exempt status, compelling applicants to divulge the nature of their prayers and reading material, among other things. This targeting had the effect of silencing those who wanted only to engage in constitutionally protected speech but were prevented from doing so by the Obama administration.
These actions represent the biggest threat to free speech since the late 18th century, when Americans were arrested, fined and thrown into prison for the crime of disagreeing with their government. It is a hideous blot on U.S. history but the Obama administration and Senate Democrats are actively engaged in finding new ways to restrict our freedom of speech through executive fiat and rewriting the most important part of the Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment contains those personal freedoms most precious to Americans: religion, assembly, redress of grievances, the press and speech. They, more than any other liberties, are the bedrock of the exceptional nature of the American founding. But if government can decide that free speech is no longer a fundamental liberty, we have lost the means to fight for all the others.Jenny Beth Martin is a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.