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The Chilling Effect

Peter Orvetti
Campaign For Liberty [1]
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

There was an ugly turn in the national debate over health care policy last week. Reasoned arguments were cast aside, and threats, name-calling, and coercion took center stage. Oh, and some of the critics of President Obama’s plan got out of hand too.

Aggression, intimidation, and physical violence of the sort seen at some of the so-called “town hall” meetings on health care have no place in public discourse. Such tactics are despicable, not to mention counterproductive. But those in the halls of power are employing subtler, though still insidious, tactics to suppress dissent.

“If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to [email protected]” That’s the message posted last Tuesday, not by the Democratic National Committee, nor by Obama’s re-election campaign-in-utero Organizing for America, but on the official White House website by a government employee. Can you imagine if the last administration had posted something like that about the Iraq war?

In a letter to Obama, Sen. John Cornyn wrote, “I am not aware of any precedent for a President asking American citizens to report their fellow citizens to the White House for pure political speech that is deemed ‘fishy’ or otherwise inimical to the White House’s political interests. … I can only imagine the level of justifiable outrage had your predecessor asked Americans to forward emails critical of his policies to the White House. I suspect that you would have been leading the charge in condemning such a program-and I would have been at your side denouncing such heavy-handed government action.”


The White House website message called on readers to rat out “disinformation” about the President’s agenda — which legal analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano warns may be a violation of the Privacy Act of 1974. But a lot of the Democratic criticism of the opposition is not even about its message — it’s about the method of delivery. Sen. Barbara Boxer said on MSNBC, “This is just all organized. You in the media have to take a look at what’s going on here. This is all planned. It’s to hurt our president and it’s to change the Congress.”

Well, yes, some of the actions have been organized — just as demonstrations against the Iraq war have been organized, just as demonstrations against Vietnam and in favor of civil rights were organized. That’s called “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” And yes, it is aimed at changing the direction of policy, or, failing that, to change the policy makers. Isn’t that the point of all activism in a free society?

  • A d v e r t i s e m e n t

While his partisans were making these complaints, Obama himself — with that hypocritical speed that only political types can withstand without getting whiplash — sent an email to supporters. The former community organizer wrote, “We’ve got to get out there. These canvasses, town halls and gatherings only make a difference if you turn up to knock on doors, share your views and show your support.”

Political journalist A.B. Stoddard said of the Obama Administration’s efforts, “They obviously feel that they have to fight back against these ‘mobs’. . . but this is democracy in action. There is nothing they can do. The more they complain about it at the White House level, I think the worse it becomes.”

The issue here is not whether or not an expanded government role in paying for health care is a good idea. You do not need to be an opponent of the President’s plan to be concerned by this orchestrated — dare I say, organized — effort to stifle and marginalize any criticism of the President’s views. It was bad when Bush did it, it was bad when Nixon did it, and it’s bad when Obama is doing it.

It does seem that one good thing has come of all this, however. The atmosphere at the “town hall” events has become so toxic that some members of Congress have cancelled the large, staged events in favor of actually scheduling one-on-one meetings with their bosses — their constituents — to discuss their concerns. That’s change we can believe in.