The old, classical idea of liberalism embraced freedom of speech. A commitment to liberty meant respecting the right of every person to speak, and it equally meant opposing the use of state power to censor or in any way “chill” freedom of speech.
By the same token, all people were free to associate for the purpose of advancing their peaceful interests and government had no right to interfere either directly or indirectly, such as by compelling the release of membership information.
The leading case in this regard is NAACP v. Alabama. Alabama’s segregationist officials, irked that the NAACP was working against their policies, wanted it silenced and ousted from the state. Toward that goal, it relied upon state law to compel the NAACP to disclose a list with the names and addresses of all its members and agents within the state.
In its brief, co-authored by Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP argued that Alabama was trying to violate constitutionally protected rights of free speech and association.
The case was decided in 1958. Unanimously, the Supreme Court held that the state could not require the NAACP to disclose such information. Writing the Court’s opinion, Justice Harlan said, “Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”
Alabama’s contempt citation and heavy fine against the NAACP for failure to comply with its demands were tossed out.
Joining Justice Harlan were famous liberals: Earl Warren, William O. Douglas, Hugo Black, William Brennan. You have to wonder what they would say about modern “liberals” who have no qualms about using the power of government to punish groups espousing dissident beliefs.
Today’s dissidents, groups such as Americans for Prosperity (AFP), no longer need to protest state segregation, but they protest the expansion and abuse of government power in many other respects. As Tim Phillips and David Spady of that organization write in an op-ed piece in the December 19thWall Street Journal, California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris is demanding that AFP disclose the names, addresses, and contribution levels of its supporters within the state.
Nothing in California law allows the attorney general to make that demand. But as we have seen over and over during the last several years, absence of legal justification doesn’t impede government officials who believe that “winning” is all that matters from doing whatever they want.
Attorney General Harris maintains that she would protect the confidentiality of AFP’s membership information, but we must take that with a shaker of salt. No one would have legal recourse if names and addresses somehow leaked to zealots who’d like to intimidate AFP supporters. In any event, California has no more a legitimate interest in knowing who the members and donors of AFP are than Alabama had in knowing who was supporting the NAACP.
AFP has been operating in California (and other states) for thirteen years and the government has never before seen any need to pry into its membership. Why now?
I think that Phillips and Spady are absolutely correct in writing, “Rather than debate the merits of their policies, many on the left responded with a coordinated campaign to suppress free speech – primarily by intimidating, demonizing and silencing the people who opposed and defeated them.”
Since most of the “progressive” agenda has been in place for years and many people are coming to doubt all the glowing promises made for it, we’re seeing the iron fist of statism emerge — abusive policies intended to intimidate and punish critics. Losing in the battle of ideas, progressivism desperately turns to raw power to maintain its grip on the country.
The liberals of old worried about preserving individual privacy in the face of government hostility. Justice Harlan pointed out in his opinion, “This Court has recognized the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations.” It is simply no rightful concern of government whether a person chooses to belong to or support a church, a social organization, an educational organization, an advocacy group, or anything else.
Privacy used to matter to liberals, who understood that neither “the public” nor state officials have any right to know such things about individuals.
It’s very revealing that today’s so-called liberals find the need to resort to the same tactics that defenders of segregation once used.