Byte and Switch
As House Speaker Newt Gingrich rolled into New Hampshire in mid-June to test the presidential-primary waters, his governing coalition back in Washington had begun to falter over issues of free speech. Some prominent free-market Republicans are saying that efforts by the party's right wing to impose new forms of censorship could be his undoing. Among the recent events that threaten to divide the Republicans over issues of censorship: * On May 17, the Christian Coalition unveiled its "Contract with the American Family," a platform that includes a plank to restrict soft- and hard-core pornography on the Internet. The contract was endorsed by Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, and Texas Senator Phil Gramm, at least two of whom are running for president. * This spring, House Rules Committee chairman Gerry Solomon (R-New York) filed legislation to deny tax-exempt status to organizations that advocate drug legalization. Solomon targeted the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, DC. Solomon has also called for censorship of any discussion of drug legalization on the Internet. * The June 5 New Republic report that presidential contender Gramm once invested in an R-rated skin flick exposed Gramm at a time when he's courting the religious right. * Dole, perhaps in an effort to embarrass Gramm, has been loudly attacking "Hollywood's dream factories" for promoting sex and violence. "The mainstreaming of deviancy must come to an end," says Dole, who named Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers among examples of "evil" and "depravity" in the media. Dole says he does not wish to censor media, but that contradiction has not been stressed in many press reports. These issues are potentially more damaging to Gingrich than to other politicians. He has presented himself as a supporter of the "third wave" information age, and government-imposed restrictions to the Internet would have a chilling effect on the very technology he's touted. Gingrich uses props such as computer microchips and slices of fiber-optic cable to promote himself as a wired kind of guy. He quotes futurist Alvin Toffler incessantly. He frequently portrays his political opponents as outdated technophobes "applying second-wave solutions to third-wave problems." Heck, he's even suggested that the homeless carry laptops! But when Gingrich stood with Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition to endorse that group's platform, he raised eyebrows among leaders of the free-market wing of his so-called revolution. Gingrich, reached in Chicago in early June during an on-line session from the American Booksellers Association convention, insisted, "I did not endorse all the detailed proposals of the Christian Coalition contract. I endorsed the idea that they had worked hard, represent a serious group of many Americans, and deserve to have their major ideas voted on in the House." Gingrich's dance around the censorship issue has not satisfied free-speech conservatives. "I am very disturbed by the pornography plank in the Christian Coalition contract, and by Gingrich, who should know better than to endorse it," says Virginia Postrel, editor of Reason, the nation's leading libertarian publication. "They're advocating massive regulation of both free speech and new technology." "This is a classic issue," echoes David Boaz, director of the Cato Institute, "because it shows the connection between property rights, free markets, and civil liberties, and how government intrusion interferes with all these things." The Christian Coalition supports a bill called the Communications Decency Act, which seeks to restrict sexual speech on the Internet. Sponsored by Senator J.J. Exon, a Democrat from Nebraska, it was gaveled through the Senate Commerce Committee this spring. "The Exon bill creates a massive incentive for Internet providers to act as censors," says Mike Godwin, counsel to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonpartisan cyber-liberties group. No other piece of legislation has politicized the nation's cyberspace enthusiasts like this one; more than 100,000 Internet users have already sent e-mail and signed electronic petitions in opposition to it. In May, the Justice Department issued a memo warning that the bill was unconstitutional because it violated free-speech rights. The bill's momentum slowed until the Christian Coalition, with Gingrich and Gramm as supporters, resurrected its prospects. It was scheduled for a Senate vote earlier this month, which makes Gingrich's impulse to ensure a House vote all the more ominous. Live free or die Gingrich would do well to heed the warnings of some citizens in the "Live Free or Die" state, a place with a strong free-speech tradition, despite its conservatism. "Gingrich speaks with forked tongue," says Art Ketchen, president of the Nashua, New Hampshire-based First Amendment Legal Defense Fund, a nonpartisan organization founded in 1992 to fight against efforts to censor an adult bookstore. "When he was in college he defended the right of the school paper to publish a nude centerfold. Now look at what he's doing. New Hampshire people can see through hypocrisy." Ketchen dismisses Gingrich's claim that he's a cyber-friendly pol, saying, "He's a friend of technology as long as he can control it. He wants to talk about all the great freedoms, but the moment you want to practice those freedoms, he and Solomon want to throw you in jail." "I don't think it's dawned on people yet, how dangerous this is," says Ralph Hough, a Republican and former president of the New Hampshire state senate. "I'm 52 years old. I was a young teenager during the McCarthy era. It's troubling to see the Republican Party, which should be focusing on economic policy, getting involved in censorship. Now, freedom of speech, the First Amendment, any liberties would be sacrificed for the Holy Grail." New Hampshire State Representative Alf Jacobsen, a Republican, speaks for many in his state when he says, "I'm an old-fashioned Republican. I believe in free speech. The Christian Coalition wants to impose a particular and peculiar form of morality and social arrangement on the American people. If you go back to the 1950s and the McCarthy period, the arguments are the same. They marched all those people up from Hollywood to Washington. They labeled them 'Communist.' Today they label them 'counterculture,' since the word 'Communist' doesn't have the right ring any more." "If Gingrich were to be seen as supporting censorship, it would get him in trouble in New Hampshire," says Susan McLane, a liberal Republican and former New Hampshire senator. "Look at the Manchester Union-Leader. It's the epitome of free speech. Freedom of speech is important in New Hampshire." GOP civil war Gingrich's failure to squelch this talk of censorship by the loose cannons on his own team is a source of growing discontent. And Solomon's attack on the GOP's libertarians still smarts. "The libertarian elites at the Cato Institute or the wealthy cocaine users in Hollywood," Solomon snarled when he filed his censorious bill, "couldn't care less about the damage [drug] legalization would do to the inner-city poor so long as it helps them justify their self-centered and self-indulgent lifestyles. Who is contributing to Cato? These organizations, and the individuals involved with them are violating the United States Tax Code. They need to be investigated, and their contributors should be required to pay taxes on past contributions." The McCarthyist gist of Solomon's bill is so outrageous that it obscures the equally important point: this was an attack on free speech. It was an attempt to stifle alternatives to the failed war on drugs. Indeed, it led Virginia Postrel to write in the LA Times recently, "The social issue that blows apart the Republican coalition won't be abortion, as many Democrats hope. But it may be drugs." The widening free-speech rift has some key Republican operatives scrambling to bridge it. "I'm extremely concerned about the impulse behind Solomon," says Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform, who has emerged as a leading strategist in the Republican majority. "The people who ought to be most scared about Solomon's pronouncements are the pro-lifers," says Norquist, who notes that if trying to repeal a national law becomes grounds for denial of tax-exempt status, it could soon apply to those who hope to overturn Roe v. Wade. Norquist plans to talk with the Christian Coalition about the proposal to censor the Internet, and says he'll urge Ralph Reed to replace his proposal with private-sector efforts to make more "pro-family" Internet services available. As Gingrich, the history professor, begins his flirtation with presidential politics, he ought to pay attention to the follies of the past. Guys like Joe McCarthy usually get their day, until someone like Edward R. Murrow gives them their comeuppance. New Hampshire's Art Ketchen, for one, hopes Gingrich does campaign for president in the Granite State. "I think he'd make an excellent target if enough people get at him, in public, and shoot his position full of holes," he says. "If people go up to him saying, 'I don't believe your bullshit,' he wouldn't be back in New Hampshire very soon. If he persists, the Republican Party is going to fracture over the issue of censorship."