Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

A liberal channels James Madison, and conservatives lose their minds

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - NOVEMBER 11: Congressman Ted Lieu (D-CA) speaks onstage at the ACLU's Annual Bill of Rights Dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on November 11, 2018 in Beverely Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
US Representative Ted Lieu speaks at the ACLU's Annual Bill of Rights Dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif., in November.

In a recent interview on CNN, Representative Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, was asked whether members of Congress should be doing more to stifle false or hateful speech on the Internet’s big social-media platforms.

Lieu’s response: While public officials may dislike what shows up online, the Constitution prohibits censorship.

“I would love to be able to regulate the content of speech [but] the First Amendment prevents me from doing so,” he said. “I think over the long run, it’s better that government does not regulate the content of speech.”

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Lieu was right: Google, Facebook, and Twitter are private outlets whose right to freedom of expression must not be overridden by politicians. It may be tempting to think government should squelch fake news, political bias, or deceptive Facebook posts. But that’s precisely what the Constitution forbids: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

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Conservatives have long complained about the left’s willingness to act as thought police, so you’d have thought Lieu’s words would be applauded on the right.

No such luck.

“Ted Lieu Admits Tyrannical Desires,” blared a headline in the conservative Washington Times, while The Daily Wire jeered: “Democrat Ted Lieu Admits He Wants to Censor Speech, Laments He Can’t.” Former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka seethed that Lieu “so disdains the principles of our Founding that he is prepared to betray them on live TV.” At American Thinker, a popular conservative outlet, publisher Thomas Lifson analogized Lieu to a would-be rapist, saying he would “love to be able to rape attractive women, but the criminal justice system prevents me from doing so.”

On Fox News, Tucker Carlson played Lieu’s remarks, which he claimed showed Lieu “explaining . . . that sadly he’s prevented from banning talk he doesn’t like by a pesky legal antique called the Constitution.” Carlson then asked: “Does that sound like someone who is deeply committed to a free society and its benefits? Or is it simply a bully admitting that, for now, the law won’t let him do what he wants to do, which is control your mind?”

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Regrettably, such egregious mischaracterizing of Lieu’s words is what passes for reasoned commentary on much of the right — which now cares less about making principled and persuasive arguments than it does about scoring points against the opposite team.

I write as a lifelong conservative, who came to political maturity in the Reagan era, when even liberal intellectuals like Daniel Patrick Moynihan praised the GOP as a “party of ideas .” It pains me that so much of what passes for political analysis among conservatives is now as shallow and mean as the cheap shots in which the worst liberals have long specialized.

What makes it all the more contemptible in this case is that Lieu was making a fundamentally conservative point: The Constitution protects us from ourselves, and from elected leaders who are always tempted to extend their reach too far. “The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it,” H.L. Mencken wrote. Politicians who acknowledge as much should be extolled, not trashed.

In Federalist 51, James Madison formulated this insight with memorable eloquence:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

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Ted Lieu seems to understand, even if his detractors don’t, that the First Amendment was enacted primarily as a safeguard not against dictators, but against even decent and respectable officials. The Founders didn’t shelter freedom of speech and the press primarily from fear that tyrants would otherwise undermine American liberties. They did so because they knew that ordinary officials would seek to do so. They recognized that the Constitution “must . . . enable the government . . . to control itself.”

To answer Carlson’s scornful question, yes, Lieu does sound “like someone who is deeply committed to a free society and its benefits.” I disagree with most of Lieu’s policy prescriptions, but I appreciate that even in the face of outrageous distortions in the press and on social media, even when confronted with reprehensible speech, he respects the limits set by the First Amendment.

This column is adapted from the current issue of Arguable, Jeff Jacoby’s free weekly newsletter. Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@jeff_jacoby.