Ask 10 Americans to choose their favorite constitutional amendment, and you’ll get a wide range of answers. Limited-government conservatives — there are a few of us left — might point to the Tenth. If powers aren’t granted to the federal government, they’re reserved for the states. Libertarians might opt for the Fourth or Fifth, protecting private property and guaranteeing due process. Many liberals would head straight for the First. Free speech is, after all, the foundation of the democratic process.
Surprising, then, that President Obama would struggle so much with the fundamental value that this 45-word gem embodies. Amid the convulsions in the Muslim world in September, he’s failed to stand up for free expression when a strong defense was in order; he’s attempted to stifle legitimate, albeit offensive, speech; and he’s viciously attacked the press for doing its job.
In the aftermath of the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the White House quickly fingered a 14-minute YouTube video as the instigator of the violence — which took the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others — and stuck firmly to that position. Five days later, Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, was still blaming the video for the “spontaneous protest.” The US government even paid for commercials on Pakistani TV condemning the film. America looked unsure and defensive at a moment when our leaders should been have emphasizing why free expression is a fundamental right. (Belatedly, Obama addressed the United Nations on the subject Tuesday, but the damage was already done.)
It didn’t help matters that the White House claim was entirely wrong. “The attack looked like it was planned and premeditated,” declared Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat. CBS reported that there was no anti-American protest outside the consulate at all. Even the Libyan president called it a “premeditated act of terrorism.” The loss of four Americans was tragic, and the lack of security at the Benghazi compound was troubling. The White House’s failure to understand the situation was inexcusable.
If that comparison seems unfair, consider a simple question: Would someone in India, South Africa, or Ukraine sees these actions as anything but confirming that government gets to decide what people see? When the US president speaks, it gets noticed. Last week, a Google executive in Brazil was detained by police for failing to take down video that criticized political candidates.
And as if inspired by the Kremlin or the Chinese Central Committee, the White House aggressively condemned CNN for reporting that Ambassador Stevens’ journal revealed concerns about the security in Libya. The State Department called the reporting “disgusting” and “indefensible.” Never mind that no direct quotes were released, and the journal was turned over to a third party to return to the family within 24 hours of its discovery. Embarrassingly, most of CNN’s press peers shrugged their shoulders at this attempt to intimidate the network.
Obama has hinted at the boundaries of his commitment to free expression in other ways. The administration has bullied other news organizations and prosecuted whistleblowers, as the New York Times’s public editor noted last week. And in response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling — the one that overturned some McCain-Feingold campaign-finance restrictions — he thinks “we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment.” In practice, that means scaling back First Amendment protections. When Obama proposes changes that restrict spending by corporations but not unions, it looks like partisan score-settling at its worst.
It is impossible to live life in America without encountering offensive speech. But politicians generally, and our president in particular, must vigorously defend the idea that all people should be allowed to speak their minds. Instead, Obama erroneously blamed a video — a form of expression — for what was a premeditated, violent act. He worked to quash that expression. And he has casually entertained the idea that we should chip away at the First Amendment bedrock that has served our country so well for 223 years.
Now that’s something the State Department should find indefensible.
John E. Sununu is a former Republican senator from New Hampshire. His father, former Governor John H. Sununu, is a frequent surrogate for the Mitt Romney campaign.MORE IN Commentary
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