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A 'Big Tent' Setback for Free Speech : Just talking about the merits of ending drug prohibition earns a key Republican's censure.

COLUMN RIGHT / VIRGINIA I. POSTREL

April 30, 1995|Virginia I. Postrel | Virginia I. Postrel is the editor of Reason, a monthly current-affairs magazine based in Los Angeles.

The social issue that blows apart the Republican coalition won't be abortion, as many Democrats hope. But it may be drugs.

If Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) stood in the well of the House and declared that the Christian Coalition must be silenced because its opposition to abortion constitutes a threat to constitutional order and an incitement to violence, she would be stripped of her leadership position and cast out of the Republicans' "big tent." Everyone understands that anti-abortion religious conservatives are a vital part of the Republican coalition, and even abortion-rights supporters in the party have to treat their position with respect.

Why, then, don't the libertarians who provide the brain power behind the Republicans' free-market tax, regulatory and budget-cutting policies--as well as plenty of votes--get the same respect? Why can Molinari's colleague from New York, Gerald Solomon, stand in the well of the House and call Majority Leader Dick Armey's favorite think tank, the Cato Institute, a "sinister" organization "engaged in immoral and unethical activity" and demand that it be silenced because its opposition to drug prohibition constitutes support of criminals and an incitement to drug use? If the Republican Party is serious about its big tent, why is Solomon still chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee?

On the eve of the spring recess, Solomon introduced a bill to deny tax-exempt status to any organization that advocates the legalization of drugs, mentioning by name the respected Cato Institute ("libertarian elites") and the Drug Policy Foundation ("seedy"). (The bill also would affect my employer, the Reason Foundation.)

Solomon tried to allege that such groups violate tax rules by "lobbying," which is forbidden to tax-exempt research-and-educational organizations. But if championing drug legalization as an idea and publishing research that supports it constitutes lobbying, so would advocating tax cuts, welfare reform, an increased minimum wage or protection of endangered species. And every think tank in Washington would be out of business, starting with the Heritage Foundation, whose policy papers actually mention bill numbers (and contain a disclaimer disavowing any effort to influence legislation).

The issue isn't lobbying, or even drugs. It's free speech.

Conservative drug warriors want to wipe out any talk of ending prohibition. Apparently they fear that they will lose an open debate. And with supporters like Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, conservative guru William F. Buckley, former Secretary of State George Shultz and several Reagan-appointed federal judges, drug legalization is hard to stigmatize as a wacky idea pushed by dangerous radicals. Indeed, the arguments that prohibition increases crime and erodes personal freedom are ones conservatives find quite convincing when applied to gun control--or even plain old business regulation. But the very respectability of anti-prohibition arguments, and of the people who make them, drives drug warriors crazy.

Hence Solomon's bill, which blatantly violates the First Amendment by imposing punitive taxes on unpopular speech. In his House diatribe, Solomon called for Cato to be "investigated and their contributors . . . required to pay taxes on past contributions." This is watered down McCarthyism and a direct, vicious attack on supposed Republican allies. Thanks to his committee chairmanship, Solomon can make sure his bill gets a floor vote.

Republicans who care about their party's future should hope he doesn't push the issue. As activist and friend-of-Newt Grover Norquist likes to say, the Republican coalition is just that: a coalition (a "leave us alone" coalition, in Norquist's words). And a coalition's members can bolt at any time, especially if their allies start sicking the IRS on them.

Early in the Clinton Administration, Democrats began to sneak through Congress a bill to revive the Fairness Doctrine and, in the process, to put conservative talk radio and especially Rush Limbaugh out of business. It was a sharp-eyed libertarian journalist, Charles Oliver of Investor's Business Daily, who broke the story out of the trade magazines and into the political debate. Two libertarians and a civil libertarian--John Fund of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, myself and columnist Nat Hentoff--brought the story to a larger audience. And, with the airwaves buzzing with conservative paeans to free speech, the measure died.

We were serious about free speech. Were they?

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