Examiner Editorial: Does Obama support free speech? 

Democrats like Sen. Barack Obama are increasingly showing a disturbing eagerness to invoke the power of the state to silence critics. The latest example of this growing anti-First Amendment mentality is Obama’s heavy-handed response to a television ad by an independent nonprofit that raises some very basic questions about the Illinois senator’s relationship with William Ayers, the unrepentant 1960s terrorist bomber.

Obama’s campaign has encouraged supporters to flood television stations with protests whenever they see the ad. Nothing wrong with that, but the other thrust of the Obama response was to ask the Justice Department to intervene to stop further airing of the ad. That’s where Obama crossed the line and raised a question of fundamental importance — does he or does he not believe the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

The ad was produced by a tax-exempt nonprofit, the American Issues Project, whose primary donor is an individual previously associated with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the controversial group that ran television ads in 2004 questioning Sen. John Kerry’s account of his Vietnam service.

Fox News and CNN have declined to air the ad, but it has appeared on numerous other stations. Here’s the key portion of the ad’s text: “Barack Obama is friends with Ayers, defending him as, ‘respectable’ and ‘mainstream.’ Obama’s political career was launched in Ayers’ home. And the two served together on a left-wing board. Why would Barack Obama be friends with someone who bombed the Capitol and is proud of it? Do you know enough to elect Barack Obama?”

The Obama campaign describes the ad as “false, despicable and outrageous,” according to The Associated Press. If the ad is false, the Obama campaign should have no trouble refuting it, which would likely be sufficient to persuade stations to decline the ad. Yet we’ve seen no such refutation. More worrisome is Obama’s claim in his letter seeking Justice Department intervention that AIP is willfully violating campaign finance laws.

The reality is that AIP appears to have satisfied all applicable federal regulations. Any request by any political campaign that federal officials intervene to stop the airing of legitimate political opinion ought to throw up red flags to everybody who cares about protecting the First Amendment. Obama would do well to provide credible answers to the questions raised by the AIP ad. And he should make it unequivocally clear that he supports freedom of speech for everybody, including his critics.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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