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On the Wire
Free Speech Policy of the Republican Party
By Steve Hoenisch
Last updated on July 29, 2004
Copyright 1996-2008 www.Criticism.Com
This essay appears in The Encyclopedia of the American Democratic and Republican Parties, published by the International Encyclopedia Society. The encyclopedia won the Choice Outstanding Academic Book Award in 1997.
1 Conservatives Use "Morality" as Ruse to Limit Speech
2 Government Repression
3 Communist Hysteria
4.1 Republican Party
4.2 Democratic Party
5 Bestselling Books on Democratic Party
Converative Republicans have traditionally been the politicians most likely to spurn wide-scale freedom of speech, usually invoking morality as the basis for its position. Moderative Republicans have also been party to some legislation that sought to limit speech or expression, but their arguments have been less likely to appeal to morality as a justification. Yet in the early days of the Republican Party, the Jeffersonian Republicans included freedom of speech in its campaign platform -- and won, in part, on the plank.
The history of free speech in the United States begins with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which included sections that made it illegal to utter or publish any "false, scandelous, and malicious writing" against the U.S. government or writing that defamed or brought disrepute to Congress or the president. At the time, the act fueled partisan politics, with the Republicans using it over the Federalists. In 1880, the principle that the First Amendment denied government the right to control speech became a cornerstone of the Jeffersonian Republican platform, helping Thomas Jefferson win the presidency and his fellow Republicans control of Congress. As the Republicans promised during the election campaign, they allowed the acts of 1798 to expire in 1801.
In the Republican Party's platform of 1872, freedom of speech arose again as a political issue, but by this time the party's position had shifted to more conservative inclination -- with a view that foreshadowed the anti-liberty policies that would be advocated during the first half of the next century. The platform stated that Congress and Republican President Ulysses S. Grant have fulfilled their duty in suppressing "treasonable organizations." Yet in the same platform, the party also wrote that it "proposes to respect the rights reserved by the people to themselves" and "disapproves of the resort to unconstitutional laws for the purpuse of removing evils." By 1892, the Republican Party had amended its position to a more consistent declaration for liberty of speech and press.
The World War I era was marked by government repression, 'witch hunting,' and violations of personal liberties. The policies of Republicans contributed to these violations. The Congress of 1919 and 1920 introduced more than 70 measures aimed at restricting, among other activities, peacetime sedition, the display of the red flag, and the sending of seditious material in the mail. Among the most flagrant attempts to restrict speech was the Sedition Bill of 1918, an amendment to the wartime espionage act. Introduced into the Senate by Republican Knute Nelson of Minnesota at the urging of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the bill defined as punishable sedition any activity aimed at changing the government or the laws of the United States. Endorsed by President Wilson, the act became law.
On January 2, 1920, the Department of Justice, under the direction of Attorney General Palmer carried out the so-called Palmer raids -- perhaps the most repressive actions of the "red scare" period. More than 4,000 people labeled as communists or associated with the communist labor parties were arrested in 33 cities. Palmer said they were plagued with a "disease of evil thinking." The prosecution of those who publicly advocated communism continued during the 1930s, when Representative Hamilton Fish of New York, a reactionary Republican, called for a House investigation of communists' activities and urged formation of a committee to hear testimony.
Communication technology that emerged during the 20th century often stimulated restrictive legislation -- and partisan conflict. In particular, interparty confrontation arose following the Radio Act of 1927, which established the Radio Commission. Passed at the suggestion of Republican Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who had been appointed by Republican President Warren G. Harding, the measure required broadcasters to act in the "public interests"--a phrase that allowed a Republican-appointed commission to evaluate program content when considering the renewal of stations' licenses. In 1931, the committee rejected the Chicago Federation of Labor's renewal application based on the station's programming content, triggering a battle between Republicans and Democrats that culminated in the Communications Act in 1934, which New Deal Democrats used to rewrite the Radio Act and establish a Federal Communications Commission, or FCC. After seeing how newspapers had in general supported Republcans, the New Deal Democrats wanted to ensure that radio and television would be nonpartisan. The act strenghtened the provisions of the law applying equal time for candidates and ballot measures. But it was not until 1949 that the FCC promulgated the Fairness Doctrine, which required the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on controversial issues of pulbic consequence.
By 1940, however, the Republican Party had moderated its position; its platform stood behind licensing without censorship or arbitrary controls. And in 1944, the party's platform urged a clarification of the FCC's role. Yet, partisan conflict over the act did not end in the 1940s. Five decades later, the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine under pressure from Conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan.
The split within the Republican Party of greatest historical significance came during the now infamous communist histeria years of Republican Joseph McCarthy, elected by Wisconsin to the U.S. Senate in 1946. McCarthy believed the federal government to be threatened by communist infiltration--a contention that appealed mostly to conservative Republicans, who saw McCarthy and his anti-communist hysterics as a partisan political asset. In fact, during the Congressional elections of 1950, McCarthy was the "most frequently invited speaker by senators seeking reelection." Thus it was no surprise that McCarthy's anti-communist fever was catching. The Republican Party platform of 1952 included a vehement attack on communists.
On Feb. 9, 1950, Senator McCarthy alleged that there were 205 communists in the State Department, igniting a national debate on the issue and prompting Democratic Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas of Illinois to ask the Foreign Relantions Committee to investigate the allegations. The investigating committee found McCarthy's alllegations to be "a fraud and a hoax perpetuated on the Senate of the United States and the American people." Meantime, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a Republican, spoke out against McCarthy, but failed to reel him in. Eisenhower has been criticized for not keeping Republican leaders, especially conservatives, from treating McCarthy as an asset.
On Dec. 2, 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy in a 67-22 vote, with all Democrats and 22 Republicans voting against him. Amid the anti-communist sentiment of 1948, the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Republican Richard Nixon, held hearings that led to compromising Albert Hiss, a top State Department official, as being part of a communist cell. More recently, freedom of speech has become an issue in funding for the arts through the National Endowment for the Arts. Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina introduced legislation to prohibit the National Endowment for the Arts from funding, among other restrictions, any "indecent" and "obscene" art. Although Congress rejected Helms's proposal, it did adopt, for the first time in the NEA's history, a restriction that barred funding for material determined by the NEA to be obscene.
The advent of wide-ranging public access to the Internet has also prompted calls for restrictive legislation. The Exon-Coats Amendment would outlaw making "indecent communication" available to Internet users younger than 18. It was drafted by Senators Jim Exon, a Nebraska Democrat, and Daniel R. Coats, an Indiana Republican.
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