You may be thinking that the biggest threats to free speech today are on university campuses, where chalked words like "Trump 2016" can bring outraged cries from offended students for a crackdown, which cries then get a sympathetic ear from the university administration. It's ugly, but there is no actual legal requirement that a private university give free rein to dissenting opinions.
Governments are a different story. Can a government in the United States, state or federal, actually seek to suppress speech that dissents from an official government line? I mean, don't we have a First Amendment? Government-backed speech suppression efforts are of course far more pernicious than any similar private efforts because they come backed by the government's coercive powers. But, equally of course, such suppression is everywhere. For today, I'll give just a couple of examples. As always with the government, the speech sought to be suppressed contravenes the official government line on some subject. And the official government line as always is part of the "main project" of the government, that is, the ongoing effort to use government resources to propagandize the people into supporting, or at least not opposing, the ongoing growth and expansion of the government and its powers.
Up in Westchester County (the first county immediately north of New York City) they have a long-running dispute with the federal housing bureaucracy (HUD) over whether and where to build subsidized low-income housing. As readers here know, I have long characterized subsidized low-income housing in wealthy areas as "the worst possible public policy," because it costs enormous amounts of money for small numbers of "beneficiaries," and then traps those beneficiaries in poverty for life. HUD's core business is foisting the "worst possible public policy" on more and more places in the US, and of course it needs more and more subsidized housing in more and more places in order to grow its mission and its budget. In 2006 they sued Westchester to force it to provide more subsidized housing in wealthy areas, and in 2009 then-County Executive Andy Spano (a Democrat) settled that case with an agreement to do so. Part of the settlement imposed a "monitor" on Westchester, supposedly to be sure it is complying with its obligations under the agreement. The "monitor" is a guy named James Johnson, a partner of the Debevoise law firm who previously held various positions in the Clinton administration in the 90s. After the settlement, Spano promptly lost the next election to a guy named Rob Astorino, a Republican, who then became County Executive in 2010 and continues in that job. You won't be surprised to learn that Astorino has been in a continuous tussle with Johnson ever since.
A couple of weeks ago Johnson filed a 55 page "report" with the Judge supervising the case, who is Denise Cote. Oh, she also held positions in the Clinton administration before being appointed to the bench by Clinton. The gist of the "report" is that Astorino has been repeatedly speaking out in opposition to HUD and its agenda for Westchester, and this somehow constitutes a violation of the settlement; and therefore the court must order Astorino and Westchester to stop their opposition to HUD's agenda for Westchester and speak in accordance with the HUD party line.
Stanley Kurtz of National Review has been all over this story, including a comprehensive recent article on March 30. Here is Kurtz's take on the "monitor"'s latest gambit:
The Federal Monitor wants to force Astorino, the man who has led public resistance to Obama's de facto takeover of local governments, to repudiate his own claims and parrot the administration's line instead. In effect, they want a court to order Astorino to stop criticizing Obama's HUD and start advertising HUD's own views. This is truly Orwellian stuff, a frightening demonstration of how the expansionist regulatory state ultimately chokes off political speech itself.
HUD is upset that Astorino keeps saying that it is trying to override Westchester's zoning and force Westchester to build not just the 750 subsidized units that are part of the 2009 settlement, but thousands of additional units at a cost of a billion dollars and more. As part of getting HUD grants (you should never have taken that money, Westchester!) the county has to submit a periodic report called the "AI." In its reports, Westchester keeps saying that its zoning is not racially discriminatory. And HUD keeps "rejecting" the reports, and demanding more and more "analysis" of a long list of additional factors. Astorino believes that they will keep "rejecting" the reports until Westchester confesses that its zoning is discriminatory and agrees to build vast additional amounts of HUD housing. So, should Astorino, an elected official, be allowed to express his views on what HUD is really trying to accomplish with this?
Here is an excerpt from what the "monitor" proposes as the remedy that he wants the court to order:
[T]he Monitor recommends that the Court and County take steps to ensure that the public is accurately informed about the terms of the Settlement and that the public receives an education campaign that honors the letter and spirit of Paragraph 33(c) [of the settlement agreement]. Those steps include . . . (e) hiring, within 30 days of the issuance of this report, a public communications consultant that will craft a message and implement a strategy sufficiently robust to provide information broadly to the public that describes the benefits of integration, as required by Paragraph 33(c). Within 30 days of the hiring of a public communications consultant, the County should submit a plan for a public education campaign to the Monitor for approval.
Orwellian indeed! You must conduct a public relations campaign in your name, and it must say what we want it to say, and you must submit what you plan to say to us, and we get to approve or disapprove. Sorry, Westchester, but it's time to get away from this HUD thing entirely and stop taking their money.
In the whole affair, I do have one criticism of Astorino, which is over how he pitches his message. Rob, instead of focusing only on oppressive federal overreach and the overriding of local zoning, why don't you also point to your neighboring county Manhattan (just about 4 miles away at the closest point) and ask how HUD-supported public housing there is doing at promoting HUD's supposed goals of increasing integration and lessing income inequality. If subsidized housing led to more racial integration, why are the HUD-supported projects in Manhattan islands of racial segregation? Why is the private housing in Harlem today far more integrated than the HUD-supported projects? And if subsidized housing led to lessening of income inequality, why does Manhattan, with far more than its share of public housing, have the highest income inequality in the country? And why are the HUD-supported projects, 40 and 50 and 60 years after their construction, still islands of poverty in the midst of the wealthiest county in the country? Rob, you are right on this and they are wrong. Keep fighting!
And, if you think it would be hard to top that one in the annals of government Orwellianism, then consider the current efforts of the climate campaigners to silence any dissent from the orthodoxy that government must take over at least the entire energy sector of the economy, if not the whole economy, in order to "save the planet." Back last spring, Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island embarked on a campaign to try to get the Justice Department to prosecute (criminally!) so-called "climate deniers" (dissenters from government-backed orthodoxy) under the RICO statute. Then, at a Senate hearing last month, under questioning from the same Senator Whitehouse as to why the Justice Department hasn't done anything about "the climate denial scheme," AG Loretta Lynch responded that the matter had been "discussed" and referred to the FBI for consideration. Meanwhile last week, even as the Manhattan Contrarian was pointing out that the government was relying on altered data in its brief to the DC Circuit seeking approval of an EPA plan to shut down the coal industry, AG Eric Schneiderman of New York was announcing the newfound support of 15 other AGs for his "investigation" of Exxon Mobil over insufficient obeisance to climate orthodoxy. So where is this one going? As far as I know, at least since the days of Eliot Spitzer, no company even remotely near the size of Exxon Mobil has ever been investigated for anything by the New York AG without paying at least $100 million in protection money and issuing a mea culpa. There is no reason to think that this one will end any differently.
So welcome to the new world, where everyone must toe the government line, and say only what the government wants said.