The GOP Must Practice What It Preaches on Free Speech

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has commenced his tenure by evincing that he may well exceed the expectations of many wary Republicans. While the outcome of the debt ceiling standoff with the Biden Administration and the Democratic-controlled Senate remains in doubt, McCarthy exhibited deft legislative skills in corralling his narrow Republican majority into passing a bill on this divisive issue. (Don’t you agree, Senator Schumer?) 

Perhaps it was this and other pressing events, such as the border crisis, that may have led McCarthy to miss an opportunity to show the GOP practices what it preaches on supporting free speech and opposing censorship. 

The missed opportunity stemmed from a request by U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) to reserve space in the Capitol Visitors’ Center to host a conference condemning the creation of Israel as a nakba (“catastrophe”). For his part, McCarthy argued this proposed event was inherently “antisemitic.” To the Washington Free Beacon, he further stated his belief that, “It’s wrong for members of Congress to traffic in antisemitic tropes about Israel. As long as I’m speaker, we are going to support Israel’s right to self-determination and self-defense, unequivocally and in a bipartisan fashion.” 

Those are all worthy goals that need to be pursued with determination and prudence. 

Regrettably, they were not. McCarthy reserved the space to host a bipartisan event commemorating the establishment of Israel on May 14, 1948. While such an event is laudable, the eviction of Tlaib from the space was a blow to free speech in the very heart of our nation’s government. In case the point was missed, in a tweet announcing his decision, he referenced Tlaib’s proposed gathering: “This event in the US Capitol is canceled.”

McCarthy missed both the irony and the chance to promote the principle of free speech.

The speaker is the only leadership position elected by the entire membership because he is charged with defending the rights, duties, and prerogatives of the House as an equal chamber in a coequal branch of the federal government. Unlike the majority and minority leaders—indeed, all other party leadership positions in which only one caucus votes—the speaker has the unique role of placing the protection of the institution above advancing partisan positions. Indeed, it is one reason why the speaker of the House does not have to be a House member. Of course, this does not preclude the speaker from being partisan. Consequently, when push comes to shove, for the speaker, the good of the institution must come first.

Unfortunately, McCarthy’s decision did not serve the cause of free speech and, thus, the institution. For the pragmatists among us, it was politically counterproductive in the bargain.

The “People’s House” is just that, and it is charged with protecting and defending the U.S. Constitution. Using the power of government to silence debate is a violation of it, which is precisely what the speaker did. There are House rules governing the words and deeds of members, but they cannot be applied based on presumptions of what a member might do. 

The fact that Tlaib could find another venue does not mitigate the chilling effect of McCarthy’s decision. By not averring and abiding the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, the House speaker also eroded the reputation of the House as a place where free speech is welcomed, protected, and understood as necessary. Members of Congress represent not only themselves but, first and foremost, the sovereign citizens who elected them. The House is, by constitutional design, a venue where the passions of the public are to be aired most passionately and immediately (before heading to the more deliberate Senate to cool). By attempting to “cancel” Tlaib’s event, McCarthy frustrated a fundamental purpose for the House’s very existence.  

Of course, supporters of the decision will argue this is about preventing “antisemitism” being proclaimed in the Capitol. But it is a dangerous precedent, one torn from the Left’s playbook. The prospective speaker’s history of being a malign individual is not a green light to preemptively silence him. Institutionally, the speaker has established a precedent that his successors will follow and, likely, upon which they will regrettably expand. Using McCarthy’s rationale, one could easily see a progressive speaker stopping a GOP member from using space in the Capitol to warn about Communist China. After all, the Chinese Foreign Ministry—and their American abettors—argue that any criticism of that heinous regime is racism. A progressive future speaker could also prevent a conference in the Capitol on climate change by arguing “science deniers” would spread “disinformation” and harm the planet and its inhabitants. Or she might cancel a panel discussion opposing youth transgenderism by alleging “homophobes” and “transphobes” will spew hatred and risk lives.

In the battle for free speech, the greatest temptation is to forsake the principle because one does not like the speaker or what he espouses. And what encourages a person to give in to this temptation? When the Left uses censorship, it leads to the all-too-human desire to respond in kind. This merely advances the Left’s censorship absolutists’ ultimate aim: to silence dissent from their extreme and dangerous agenda. It cannot be emphasized enough that whenever you emulate the Left for noble or ignoble reasons, the only winner is the Left.    

For example, Tlaib’s conference happened anyway—not merely in a designated space in the Capitol Visitors’ Center but in a Senate conference room. The event received far more publicity (including McCarthy’s tweet) than it would have absent the controversy. Taking the room and attempting to “cancel” the conference gives credence to the participants’ claims of being marginalized. It helped obscure the divide among the Left on the issue: 

Former Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who obtained the chamber’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Hearing Room (HELP) to host the conference, and Senator Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) who said “calling the establishment of the world’s only Jewish state a ‘catastrophe’ is deeply offensive, and I strongly disagree with allowing this event to be held on Capitol Hill.”

McCarthy’s lapse of judgment also gives credence to the egregious case of progressive projection that Republicans are the party of censorship. (Spare me, lefties. Supporting parents who seek to protect their children from pornography and sexualized material is not censorship. Censorship occurs when left-wing cancel-culture warriors and “sensitivity readers” remove allegedly offensive passages from literary classics. Do not hold your breath waiting for a PEN missive on this real, ongoing censorship.) 

In the case of McCarthy, the Democrats were quick to exploit his error. As reported by the Jewish Insider’s Marc Rod, House Democratic Caucus Chair, Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) regretted the decision as “unfortunate” and elaborated how:

People should be allowed to congregate, to have discussions, to express their viewpoints and ideas. That’s who we are . . . We’ll work with individuals within the caucus to make sure that they have an opportunity to be heard.

That doesn’t mean I agree with everything every member in my caucus says or that every sponsored group or organization that comes here says . . . Broadly, our job is to help facilitate those conversations when members have guests and groups visit.

Now, for anyone who considers this a tempest in a teapot, doubtless there were once college professors who felt the same way about incidents where campus speakers were silenced. Subsequent events proved those professors wrong then. The speaker of the House is wrong now. And speaking of turning Congress into a college campus, inside the ivy-covered walls of academia, we know the supporters of Israel are being attacked and silenced far more than those espousing the Palestinian position. Now, what will be the first thing the college commissars will fire back at him should Speaker McCarthy try to assert, rightly, that the supporters of Israel should be allowed to speak freely on campuses? 

Perhaps it was the Republican frustration over the constitutionally prescribed impotence of one legislative chamber to impact the many crises precipitated and exacerbated by the Biden Administration and its congressional Democrat enablers that may explain the speaker’s heat-of-the-moment misstep. But that’s no excuse. As Russell Kirk warned:

A man without principles is an unprincipled man. A nation without principles is an uncivilized nation. If a people forget their principles, they relapse into barbarism and savagery. If a people reject sound principles for false principles, they become a nation of fanatics.

Contrary to his critics’ charge, Kevin McCarthy is a principled man. He understands that, far from impairing civility and safety, free speech ensures it by providing a release value for people’s thoughts and feelings. Absent such a God-given, constitutionally protected right to free speech, there is but the corrosive silence of despotism and despair. 

As has often been noted, the true measure of one’s commitment to free speech is supporting it even when one disagrees with a speaker. It is also a measure of the state of our free republic. At a time when the Left’s monolithic cancel culture is destroying lives and livelihoods, the solution is the celebration of dissent and the championing of free speech—especially when one disagrees.

With that, I know Kevin agrees; and trust upon reflection he will act accordingly going forward.  

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About Thaddeus G. McCotter

An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003 to 2012 and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars, and a Monday co-host of the "John Batchelor Show" among sundry media appearances.

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