How liberals turned against free speech

Why is it considered “liberal” to compel others to say or fund things they don’t believe? That’s a question raised by three Supreme Court decisions this year. And it’s a puzzling development for those of us old enough to remember when liberals championed free speech (even advocacy of sedition), and conservatives wanted government to restrain or limit it.

The three cases dealt with quite different issues.

In National Institute of Family Life Advocates v. Becerra, a 5-4 majority of the court overturned a California statute that required anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers to inform clients where they could obtain free or inexpensive abortions — something the centers regard as homicide.

The same 5-4 majority in a second case, Janus v. AFSCME, reversed a 41-year-old precedent and ruled that public employees don’t have to pay unions fees that cover the cost of collective bargaining. Echoing a position taken by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, the court reasoned that collective bargaining with a public employer is inevitably a political matter, and that forcing employees to finance it is compelling them to subsidize political speech with which they disagree.

In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the court avoided a direct decision on whether a baker, whose Christian belief opposed same-sex marriage, could refuse to design a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple, contrary to a state law that bars discrimination against gays. Seven justices ruled that the commission showed an impermissible animus against religion, but the four liberal justices endorsed a separate opinion indicating they’d rule against the baker otherwise.

Rational arguments can be made for the dissenters’ positions. In Becerra, they argued that the law simply prevented misleading advertising; in Janus, that union members should pay for services rendered; in Masterpiece Cakeshop, that selling a cake is a routine service, not a form of expression.

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