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Stein: We All Need Roll Call to Defend Free Speech and Free Ideas

A few days after the Federation for American Immigration Reform distributed an educational report at a Senate news conference, an article in Roll Call (“Did FAIR Action Violate Law?”, July 31) suggested — despite the report’s nearly 100 endnotes and a purely educational purpose — the organization might have violated a criminal statute that prevents soliciting for funds or subscriptions on Senate property.

The FAIR report had a standard page tucked in the inside back cover that suggested folks could join the organization and become a member. No elected official conducting the news conference mentioned FAIR or the report at all.

FAIR staff members distributed this original research product in an effort to explain — through a thoroughly documented chronology — the policy steps the Obama administration has taken to decrease or eliminate various levels of immigration enforcement and related security.

The content was aligned with the theme of the press conference — and it was public education all the way. No effort was made to flag this one membership page buried at the end of the report containing information that is standard material for any self-respecting 501(c)(3) public charity. There’s no evidence that anyone in the room even saw the page at issue while in the room (the reporter who wrote the story wasn’t in the room), and there certainly was no effort by FAIR to suggest that the material was handed out to solicit funds.

We’ve gotten used to the fact that immigration policy discussions are controversial: but this has to be a real first here in town. First Amendment freedoms at their most basic level are involved here. Imagine what it means if a newspaper or scholarly research report is tagged as criminal solicitation for subscriptions or funds just because it happens to contain a plug for advertising, subscriptions or membership as a part of the publication handed out for a public policy and educational purpose to one or more people on Senate property?

Aren’t journalists supposed to err on the side of free speech in evaluating these sorts of rules and speech limitations? The reporter sounds like he thinks FAIR should be indicted for handing out a report that was entirely pertinent to the substance of a news conference.

While we understand the prohibitions on campaign fundraising on government property, this is not what we’re talking about. Under the reporter’s interpretation of the law, Roll Call itself would be prohibited from distributing its newspaper (free) if it contains a plug for advertising or subscriptions. Is this what our democracy has come to? Every public policy organization in this town needs to be made aware of this ludicrous allegation if it has any merit at all (which it doesn’t).

I realize that there are people in the “opinion elite” who don’t agree with FAIR. I realize that millions are now being invested every year in a systemic effort to cast aspersions on those who seek better immigration controls. But one gets the feeling here that the content of the report was what inspired this Roll Call article, and that is very troubling.

The fact is, the report is critical of the policies pursued by the Obama administration. It details dozens of incremental steps taken by the Obama administration to weaken and restrict immigration enforcement, weekly acts of raw intimidation against state and local governments that have attempted to partner in the enforcement of immigration laws, and a campaign of misrepresentation designed to convince the American people that immigration laws are, in fact, actually being respected and enforced. The report explains the “nullification” strategy that is going on in this administration.

It seems to me this is the stuff of public policy analysis that is at the core of our democratic and congressional system.

So was Roll Call’s objection really about the substance? Or does it just reflect some particularized bias? The article fails to discuss the report. Instead it collapses into a repetition of ridiculous old smears from a discredited organization that shrieks epithets and other silliness. These negative labels are unrelated to the substance of anything FAIR has said or done; they are merely efforts to try to marginalize the organization and the views of hundreds of thousands of Americans associated with it.

This is truly bizarre, in my view. But I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. One has to wonder — how often have public policy organizations in this town distributed similar material at news conferences, and how often has Roll Call (or any other media outlet) written about it in this vein? I would wager rarely, if ever.

It is a shame that Roll Call, long viewed by all of us as a citadel of free speech and ideas, should allow its storied reputation to be hijacked by reporters and editors who cannot separate their political views from their journalistic ethics.

Dan Stein is president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.