On March 18, 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a speech on race in America at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center. Though many praised the president for addressing the thorny topic, it’s worth recalling Obama was essentially forced into giving the speech after refusing to distance himself from the indefensible racial comments of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. One month after Obama’s eventual inauguration, his attorney general, Eric Holder, would call America a “nation of cowards” because “Americans simply do not talk enough with each other about race.” The problem, however, is not that Americans don’t talk enough about race. The wellspring of American liberalism that produced Barack Obama and Eric Holder hasn’t stopped talking about it for decades.
Increasingly, the problem is that institutional liberalism is dedicated to using the force of law to silence anyone who wants to have a politically inconvenient conversation on race—or anything else, for that matter. Last month, almost five years to the day since the president’s speech on race, the City of Brotherly Love once again became the locus of our national conversation. Mayor Michael Nutter fired off an angry—and lengthy—letter taking Philadelphia magazine to task for an article entitled “Being White in Philly.” In the piece, a number of white residents complained that viewing the city through a racial prism made it hard to address civic problems. According to Nutter, the article “aggregates the disparaging beliefs, the negative stereotypes, the ignorant condemnations typically and historically ascribed to African-American citizens into one pathetic, uninformed essay quoting Philadelphia residents.”
Nutter is entitled to his opinion. What the mayor is not entitled to do is go after others for expressing theirs. In February, The Weekly Standard published “The Sensitivity Apparat,” chronicling the chilling growth and activism of state and local “human rights” or “civil rights” commissions around the country, which have been imposing fines and threatening ordinary citizens for such crimes as expressing Christian moral views or publicly making jokes about politicians. With that in mind, here is the conclusion to Nutter’s letter:
I therefore request that the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations . . . consider specifically whether Philadelphia magazine and the writer, Bob Huber, are appropriate for rebuke by the Commission in light of the potentially inflammatory effect and the reckless endangerment to Philadelphia’s racial relations possibly caused by the essay’s unsubstantiated assertions.
While I fully recognize that constitutional protections afforded the press are intended to protect the media from censorship by the government, the First Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not an unfettered right, and notwithstanding the First Amendment, a publisher has a duty to the public to exercise its role in a responsible way. I ask the Commission to evaluate whether the “speech” employed in this essay is not the reckless equivalent of “shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater,” its prejudiced, fact-challenged generalizations an incitement to extreme reaction.
There you have it. Philadelphia magazine now faces the threat of fines and other legal sanctions for publishing an article the mayor dislikes. If anyone thought “Being White in Philly” was unconvincing in its claim that you can’t have frank discussions about race in the city, well, we now know how right it was. And while Philadelphia magazine’s article is hardly above criticism, nothing in the essay is as racist as Mayor Nutter’s assertion that merely reading about stereotypes will lead to panic and violence.
It seems unlikely that Philly’s Human Relations Commission will hesitate to sit in judgment of a member of the local media. The commission posted this note to its Facebook page last week: “NPR has been running a damaging, poorly-researched series, claiming without facts that disabled people are choosing benefits when they could be working. This has already gone viral on right-wing media—we need to correct the record!” National Public Radio’s oft-cited report suggesting some of the 14 million Americans on disability might be gaming the system was neither unconvincing nor controversial. But if Philadelphia’s Human Relations Commission senses a right-wing conspiracy at NPR, what hope does Philadelphia magazine have of being fairly investigated?
The Philadelphia Human Relations Commission has asked Philadelphia’s editor to appear at its next meeting, on April 18, but the idea of a media outlet kow-towing to the mayor’s bureaucratic junta should be offensive to American—and liberal—notions of free speech. An example must be made, and the swift, unanimous public condemnation of Nutter and his board of censors is in order to keep the plague of Orwellian “civil rights” commissions from metastasizing.