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On the Wire
Free Speech Policy of the Democratic Party
By Steve Hoenisch
Last updated on July 30, 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.
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Despite the guarantees of the First Amendment, challenges to and for freedom of speech and expression have been waged through U.S. history over a variety of issues, the most common of which have been the press, radio and television, communism, sedition, public school textbooks, pornography, and art, including music. The advent of new technology, such as radio and, recently, the Internet, has often been followed by restrictive legislation.
The contemporary Democratic Party has tended to take a more liberal view toward freedom of expression, being in general less likely than Republicans to oppose expression without limitation. The Democratic Party's record on free speech, despite such blemishes as President Woodrow Wilson's appointment in 1919 of A. Mitchell Palmer as attorney general, does not approximate the attacks on liberty perbetrated by such members of the Republican Party as Senators Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and Knute Nelson of Minnesota. Yet members of the Democratic Party have at times taken strong action against free expression. There have also been splits within the Democratic Party, often between conservative Southern Democrats and their more liberal, prolabor Northern colleagues.
The era surrounding World War I stands out as being marked by repressive anti-speech policies, often proposed by leading Democrats, and subsequent violations of personal liberties. The Congress of 1919 and 1920, for instance, 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. A Senate committee headed by Less S. Overman, a Southern Democrat of North Carolina, focused on attempting to suppress radical and Bolshevik activities with such restrictive legislation as the Overman bill, which did not pass.
Of greater flagrance in attempting to limit speech was the Sedition Bill of 1918. Introduced into the House by Democratic Representative Martin Davey of Ohio at the urging of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the bill sought to define as punishable sedition any activity aimed at changing the government or the laws of the United States. Endorsed by President Wilson, a Democrat, the act passed both houses to become law.
On January 2, 1920, the Department of Justice, under the direction of Attorney General Palmer, an appointee of President Wilson, carried out what have come to be known as the 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."
After World War I, in 1930, Representative Hamilton Fish of New York, called for a House investigation of communists' activities and urged formation of a committee to hear testimony.
Another piece of Democrat-propeled legislation that runs counter to the party's liberal traditions is the Alien Registration Act, otherwise known as the Smith Act after Democrat Howard W. Smith of Virginia, who introduced in 1939. The act forbade advocating the violent overthrown of the government and the publication of writing toward that end. It passed both houses in 1940 and was signed into law by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1948, the act was used by the Roosevelt administration's Justice Department to indict leaders of the American Communist Party.
The advent of public radio created partisan conflict between Republicans and Democrats. The Radio Act of 1927, passed at the suggestion of Republican Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, himself appointed by Republican President Warren G. Harding, 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 1929, the committee denied a request by the Chicago Federation of Labor to expand its programming. Then in 1931, the committee rejected the station's renewal application based on the station's programming content. The decision started a battle between the Republicans and the Democrats. It culminated in 1934 with the Communications Act, of which the New Deal Democrats won passage 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 wasn't until 1949 that the FCC promulgated the Fairness Doctrine, which required the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on controversial issues of pulbic consequence. Yet partisan conflict over the broadcasting policy did not end there. Five decades later, the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine under pressure from Conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan. Soon after, Senator Ernest Hollings, a moderate conservative Democrat, fought to reinstate the rule.
The advent of wide-ranging public access to the Internet has also prompted calls for restrictive legislation, following the pattern evident throughout the 20th century: Politicians react with regulatory fervor to the unknown effects of new technology. The Exon-Coats Amendment, proposed as part of the telecommunications reform bill, aimed at making "indecent communication" available to Cyberspace users younger than 18. As the amendment's name implies, it was drafted by Senators Jim Exon, a Nebraska Democrat, and Daniel R. Coats, an Indiana Republican.
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