Over the years, I have always figured Ron Paul to be the genuine article libertarian, maybe a little weird and extreme in his views (isolationist, racist), but really sincere, and thus someone who would follow these views even if they him to alliances with unusual bed fellows. Who, for example, would have thought of Ron Paul as an ally of Public Citizen (my long-time employer)? His isolationism and concerns about loss of national sovereignty led him to work with Public Citizen’s trade group, which worries about the impact of international trade treaties on domestic consumer and environmental protections, even though I should think Paul would disapprove of Public Citizen and of the protections themselves, on libertarian grounds.
But a lawsuit that Paul’s campaign committee is pursuing in federal court in California makes it impossible to reconcile with the principles that he claims.
In early January, some anonymous individuals made a nasty video attacking presidential candidate Jon Huntsman as being too close to the Chinese, showing him speaking Mandarin and playing with his adopted daughters. The video opened with a screen entitled “The Manchurian Candidate,” and ended with a screen that stated “American Values and Liberty Vote Ron Paul.” The pseudonym used to post the video also allkuded to support for Paul’s candidacy The immediate reaction of many in the press and the blogosphere was to blame Paul for what some of his supporters had apparently done. Paul’s campaign was quick to condemn the video as well, noting that “Unfortunately, every candidate has supporters who do stupid things." The story was in the news briefly, then attention passed on to other things.”
Similar videos were posted on YouTube with tag screens stating Vote Mitt Romney and Vote Rick Santorum, using the monikers NH4MittRomney and NH4Santorum. Posters then asked whether there would be condemnations of Romney and Santorum for the videos. So far as I have seen, there were not; public attention had simply moved on.
Paul’s campaign, however, seems to have been determined to keep the issue alive, because it filed a lawsuit against the Doe posters, claiming that the use of Paul’s name in the closing screen of the video and as part of the pseudonym used to make the video public violated the trademark in Paul’s name by creating confusion about whether the campaign committee or Paul himself was responsible for the videos, and defamed Paul by implying that he held racist views and had attacked Huntsman over his adopted daughters. Paul’s lawyers filed a sneaky ex parte motion for leave to take discovery identifying the anonymous individuals who put out this video.
In a pair of amicus briefs that Public Citizen has filed along with the ACLU, EFF and the Digital Media Law Center, as well as in blog posts about the case, here and here, we have explained why the lawsuit is an egregious assault on free speech and how the very bringing of the case is likely to encourage other suits like it, thus making it harder for ordinary people to express their views freely about candidates for public office. Simply put, nothing about saying “Vote Ron Paul” implies sponsorship by Ron Paul himself, and individuals have every right to express their views about candidates for office, including on an anonymous basis. And if Paul’s lawsuit were to succeed, on the theory that a candidate has the right to prevent supporters from advocating their candidacies on obnoxious grounds, it would just encourage other candidates to sue individuals over their speech about candidacies.
What continues to amaze me, though, is how Paul is getting a free pass for this assault on free speech. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum haven’t filed lawsuits over identical videos that use their names in attacking Huntsman; why is Ron Paul the only candidate who filed such a suit? Indeed, so far as I have been able to discover, he is the only serious candidate for President in the past few decades who has ever filed a libel suit, and there are certainly Presidential candidates who have suffered far worse attacks. (I am not thinking of candidates who sued longer ago, but fifty years takes us back to the beginning of First Amendment protection against libel litigation brought by public figures). Why aren’t the reporters who follow him around on the campaign trail not asking him how he can justify his use of litigation to oppress his critics and how it is consistent with the principles of liberty for which he claims to stand? How is this consistent with his First-Amendment based assault on campaign finance regulation such as McCain-Feingold? Does he just want to substitute the courts and privately financed litigation for the FEC?
In the end, this litigation reminds me of Phil Ochs’ great line about liberals, who are “Ten degrees to the left of center in good times, but ten degrees to the right of center when it affects them personally.” Paul's maintenance of this lawsuit shows him to be a libertarian in good time, but not when he wants to go after free speech that affects him personally?