July 8, 2016 Print

Frederick Douglass once called the suppression of free speech a “double wrong,” because “it violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” This truth becomes especially apparent when political speech is stifled, making it difficult or impossible for a speaker’s message to reach his or her audience. A new book by Wall Street Journal author Kimberley Strassel, titled The Intimidation Game: How the Left is Silencing Free Speech, examines several cases from the last few years in which state and federal government officials have targeted private groups and citizens for exercising their freedom of speech.

The book highlights an incident involving criminal investigations of roughly 30 conservative organizations based in Wisconsin that had been active in supporting Gov. Scott Walker’s reforms of public employee benefits, debt structure, spending, and more. These groups had done nothing illegal, but their involvement in political speech was targeted by a district attorney who was an avowed opponent of the governor. These investigations were conducted under Wisconsin’s “John Doe” law, which allowed them to be done in secret, with gag orders placed on all those being investigated. Subpoenas were sent out and pre-dawn raids were conducted on homes of several of the people being investigated, and none of the people whose homes were raided were allowed to speak to anyone other than their lawyers about it.

Strassel spoke about this episode in a recent presentation about her book at the Heritage Foundation. This probe went on for years, she explained, before one of the people under investigation, activist Eric O’Keefe, defied the gag order and went public to the Wall Street Journal. Eventually, the case worked its way up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which ruled the investigations unconstitutional. Strassel paraphrased the ruling of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and its observation that the “special prosecutor had invented theories of law in order to go after Americans who were wholly innocent of any wrongdoing.”

Since 2013, Watchdog.org has taken the lead in exposing the politically motivated “John Doe” probes against supporters of Gov. Walker, producing nearly 350 stories to date and helping draw considerable national attention to the story. Watchdog's work was a big part of why eventually, last fall, Gov. Walker signed into law two separate bills that reformed the controversial John Doe law, and dismantled the Government Accountability Board. The Wisconsin Supreme Court and several Wisconsin state legislators have directly credited Watchdog.org and its reporting for helping these bills pass.

Similar events have been happening around the country since 2010, and Strassel’s book brings many more of them to light.

Strassel’s work with the Wall Street Journal dates back to 1994, and she now serves on its editorial board, as well as having written the “Potomac Watch” column since 2007. In 2006, she wrote the book Leaving Women Behind: Modern Families, Outdated Laws, which explains how government regulations limit economic opportunities available to women. Strassel also received the Bradley Prize for journalistic excellence in 2014.