One way or another, the Obama administration is trying to shut up its critics, and if that requires plopping First Amendment free-speech guarantees into a six-foot grave and covering the principles up with mud, so be it.
That's emphatically (if figuratively) what happened when bureaucrats in the Department of Health and Human Services told Humana Inc. that it would be in deep, deep trouble if it kept sending letters to some 900,000 people warning of an unwanted fate if Congress proceeded with a $400 billion Medicare cut: loss of important benefits.
The anger was high. President Barack Obama himself fumed aloud about insurance companies supposedly misleading the public. Democratic senators barked and then the bureaucrats began biting, informing Humana it was under investigation and must abide by a gag order.
Bothering to be accurate, some observers replied that Humana was telling the truth about what inevitably has to happen when you take away funds for private options to Medicare, adding that even if you think the firm's points arguable, the Constitution permits dispute with government positions.
Though it still made some minor demands, Health and Human Services retreated, disposing of the gag order. But this administration has hardly retreated from its all-out assault on contrary voices, as witness the way in which Fox News has been demonized by Obama himself, by White House political advisor David Axelrod, by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and, of course, by Communications Director Anita Dunn.
The administration has essentially been saying that no one should take Fox seriously because even its news shows are pure, unadulterated opinion. They are not. Opinion may pose as news on Fox sometimes, but does anyone think that doesn't happen with The New York Times, with NBC, with CNN? Come off it.
The big difference is that Fox is less reluctant to challenge Obama or to go after his policies with vigor on commentary shows that ordinarily offer up opposite views at the same time. I happen to think much of the Obama coverage by traditional outlets is embarrassingly embracing, and that even Fox's sometimes overreaching comedian-commentator Glenn Beck is beating them on stories they ought to have.
He has been out front, for instance, in comments about various ideological radicals in the administration, including Mark Lloyd, chief diversity officer of the Federal Communications Commission, who is a real danger to open debate, it seems to me.
Lloyd is someone who has spoken glowingly of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez -- who thinks it OK to eliminate radio stations that do not support him -- as leading a true democratic revolution. Lloyd has written of freedom of speech as something sometimes misused to thwart democratic aspirations. He has co-authored a paper saying the radio-controlling Fairness Doctrine never went out of existence and that radio station license renewals in this country should be challenged with tough standards.
What do you suppose he wants to achieve in his job?
There are still others in the administration whose attachment to free speech seems less than wholehearted -- for instance, Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Read up on positions he has taken over the years and you find that he thinks speech in America should be regulated to bring about improved deliberation of public affairs. Enough of this marketplace of ideas crud.
And there are still other actions by the administration that show little if any respect for the concept of people being allowed to speak up. It has, as a particularly scary example, favored a U.N. resolution saying that citizens of the world should not be free to stereotype people by race or religion, according to an article in The Weekly Standard. What that can mean if actually enforced is the end of all kinds of legitimate inquiry and discussion that have no hostile intent or prejudicial content whatsoever.
Hold on to your First Amendment, fellow Americans. This could be a long, bumpy ride.
Jay Ambrose, a former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com.