Senator Obama and his campaign are not the first people in the last fifty years of American history who have tried to use the law to quash political intimidation, especially when faced with the prospect of political ads that they fear. Indeed, one of the most important Supreme Court cases that emerged from the civil rights struggle of the twentieth century was brought by plaintiffs who did not like what what was said about them in a political ad, and was brought for the express purpose of chilling future political ads and press coverage of what they were doing. Those plaintiffs, southern law enforcement officials wanted to shut down attention being paid to the sometimes violent clashes between law enforcement and those fighting for civil rights. To draw attention to the problem, a group of civil rights activists took out an ad, headlined "Heed Their Rising Voices," in the New York Times. The ad described various events and tactics that southern law enforcement in Alabama had directed at civil rights protesters. The ad itself contained a few, relatively minor factual errors. But its real significance for those who wanted to continue to use brutal methods to suppress those fighting for civil rights was that it raised awareness across the country, and particularly the northern states, about what was going in Alabama, then one of the hotbeds of racism and resistance. The plaintiffs feared publicity, because they feared how people would react to publicity. Because the defendants won and won on First Amendment grounds, "Heed Their Rising Voices" not only transformed defamation law in this country but allowed the national press not just to run paid ads but to cover the civil rights movement in the South without fear. That coverage brought the events and the issues to nationwide attention and played a role in building a nationwide consensus that various laws and customs, particularly those from the Jim Crow era, were not only legally unacceptable, but socially and politically repugnant.
So, political ads can change the world. Apparently Senator Obama appreciates this. Hence the "truth squads" who, like the plaintiffs in Times v. Sullivan, will use law enforcement to shut down speech. (For discussion of the truth squads announced in Missouri look here and here.)
What Senator Obama seems to forget is the very high value our constitution places on political speech, even false political speech.
I confess a particular interest in the creation of these truth squads. With Marc Rubin, I founded The Denver Group, a political organization dedicated to running political ads, first during the primary season and now into the general election, under the banner Democrats For Principle Before Party. You can see ads we have created, raised money to run, and have run here and here. We are currently preparing television commercials to be aired in various states. With sufficient funds, we will most certainly run the commercials in every state where a "truth squad" is in operation. Because as Democrats and democrats we believe in full freedom of political speech - even if our Party's presidential candidate does not.
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