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Patrick Maines: The Left's attack on freedom of speech

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Patrick Maines

Though it's been little noted, the growing illiberalism of the country's "progressives" threatens dark days ahead for freedom of speech, as most of us have come to know it.

From speech-stifling political correctness to the menacingly evolving concept of "hate speech," freedom of expression is today under relentless assault.

Unless you're paid to keep on top of such things, you might not know it. By and large, the media have ignored all the signs -- the growth of campus "speech codes," the corpus of literature proposing to deprive so-called hate speech the protection of the First Amendment, the rise of organizations aiming solely to snuff out political speech with which they disagree.

Two recent developments illustrate the problem. The first was the YouTube trailer called "Innocence of Muslims," and the second was the recent canceling at Fordham University of a speech by Ann Coulter.

As we all know now, the YouTube video -- which was said by administration officials at the time to have been the reason for the "demonstration" that led to the deaths of the American ambassador to Libya and three of his aides -- played no such role.

But before that was known, this canard was reported at face value by most of the media, and inspired the Los Angeles Times to publish an Op-Ed titled "Does 'Innocence of Muslims' meet the free-speech test?" The author of the piece, one Sarah Chayes, opined that it does not; that under Supreme Court case law, the video "is not, arguably, free speech protected under the U.S. Constitution and the values it enshrines."

The nonsensical nature of Ms. Chayes' legal opinion is less important than the fact that the Times saw this piece as worthy of publication.

The Fordham case was of a piece with the general problem. There, the College Republicans, a student group, were pressured by other students, faculty and senior administrators (most notably including the president of the university) into canceling a campus speaking invitation that the group had extended to conservative pundit Ann Coulter.

The existence, and widespread acceptance by the mainstream media, of groups like Media Matters and the preposterously named "Free Press" also says a lot about the current environment. Media Matters exists, solely and openly, for the purpose of silencing conservative voices, while Free Press is little more than a front group for political action of a sort that is actually inimical to a free press.

As the head of an organization that derives all of its financial support from media and communications companies, it is a matter of profound concern to me that reporters and editors are not exposing these groups and trends for the threat they are. It is not, and has never been enough, for journalists to protect just their own free speech. Everyone else's speech is just as important.

Nor is it enough simply to observe that, because all of the actors noted above are private (rather than governmental) parties, their activities do not rise to the level of First Amendment issues, per se. The speech clause of the First Amendment exists, after all, not to guarantee the First Amendment, but to guarantee free speech and a free press.

When theories and organizations arise whose goals are at odds with those American values, it's incumbent on all freedom-loving people, and the press especially, to shine a bright light on them and on the error of their ways.

Patrick Maines is president of the Media Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of speech, sound communications policies and journalistic excellence. The views expressed are his alone.