Sunday, August 29, 2004

Campaign Strategy Watch - Stifling Free Speech A Losing Strategy

Ned Barnett (c) 2004

There is a serious strategic mistake-in-process, one that could shatter much of Senator John F. Kerry's credibility with some of his core groups.

Kerry, a man with impeccable liberal credentials - is trying to stifle his opponents' freedom of speech, a move almost certain to boomerang, except, perhaps among the most virulent Bush-haters.

For long, the Left has charged Attorney General Ashcroft with attempts to stifle debate and intimidate opponents - it has been an issue with deep resonance among those who oppose the Presidents.

As a matter of course, many liberals are strong supporters of free speech (including the ACLU and their supporters) - and, at least when they see Conservatives behind such moves, they are quick to recognize the "chilling effect" of threatened (frivolous, but expensive to defend) lawsuits.

However, such "chilling effect" lawsuits are just one of Senator Kerry's repressive new tactics as he fights a bitter defensive war against many of his former military comrades.

The Kerry campaign, and statements by Senator Kerry himself, are showing what appears to be a remarkable disdain for freedom of speech - at least the freedom of speech enjoyed by Senator Kerry's vocal opponents, the 264 combat veterans of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Imagine the reactions of the media - and the Left - had Mr. Bush taken a similar repressive stance.

Not much more than three weeks ago, the Senator challenged opponents to "bring it on!" But when some of his fellow Vietnam vets did just that, Kerry cried "foul" and began demanding - of President Bush, of the media, of anybody who would listen - that these vets be deprived (directly or indirectly) of their right to free speech.

He also launched what could only be called a smear campaign against the Swifties, as individuals, and as a group - however, such smear campaigns are "business as usual" in hardball political campaigns. What is unusual is Kerry's determined efforts to deprive his opponents of their very right to speak, to tell their story.

FIRST - the Kerry campaign had their lawyers write threatening (but obviously hollow) letters to all the TV stations scheduled to run the first of the Swifties' ads. While the legal precedent cited was without merit, and easily debunked, the threat of legal action was not. These stations gross just $400 or so per 30-second ad, and the Swifties ad placement buys were not large. Yet the cost to the stations of having their lawyers review the case law and affidavits provided by the Swifties (more than 60 pages of them) would run into the thousands of dollars - for each station. So the mere threat from Kerry's campaign had real teeth - what the media like to call (when referring to Conservative actions) "a chilling effect" on free speech.

Those letters were made public, to a remarkable "yawn" from the media, even though they were clearly intended to infringe the free-speech rights of 264 Vietnam vets, as well as the free press rights of the TV stations involved. Notably, none of the stations buckled under to the threat - but the key issue here seems to be "intent," not the ultimate impact. Kerry's team tried to stifle free speech and free press rights.

NEXT - Kerry personally ordered his campaign to file a complaint (a complaint without merit, according to both the Washington Post and NPR's All Things Considered) to the FEC about the Swifties' 527 Organization, based on low-level "connections" between a few donors and people who know George Bush, some campaign volunteers and one hired-gun lawyer. This in spite of the fact that Democratic-leaning 527 Organizations - such as the one headed by former two former Clinton Administration officials. For instance, Harold Ickes heads two 527s - the Media Fund and Americans Coming Together - both created to "bring down the president and help Democrats nationwide this fall" and together targeting a war chest of $150 million ad dollars. John Podesta is President and CEO of the 527 organization known as American Center for Progress, another big-bucks player in the 527 campaign to retire George W. Bush after one term.

Both of these men - and their organizations - are representative of left-leaning 527 groups with far closer ties to Kerry than anything alleged about the Swifties. Those left-of-center 527 organizations have received 83% of ALL of the 527 Organizations' donations, and have placed (already) more than $69 million dollars in ads. Compare this to the Swifties' half-million dollar ad buy.

NEXT - Kerry called on the publisher of "Unfit for Command" to cease and desist the publication of this book - a kind of suppression of political thought more common in dictatorships than in a freedom-loving democracy. Oddly, this is not the first time Senator Kerry has suppressed a book. However, the first time this kind of suppression happened, Senator Kerry suppressed his own book, The New Soldier. Long out of print, Kerry has consistently refused to permit a reprint of this virulent anti-war screed to be re-published. Rare copies can be found on E-Bay for over a thousand dollars - but recently, a bootleg copy has appeared online. For those who want to read it, go to: - do it soon, as I imagine that Kerry-funded legal actions are already being taken to shut down this website, too.

NEXT - Book store chains have been reporting (though the media has been largely ignoring) the fact that they have been receiving letters pressuring them to not carry the book "Unfit for Command." Some of these letters have compared this book to "The Hitler Diaries" fraud of two decades ago. These charges were leveled even though this book carries the sworn testimony (affidavits have been provided to the media on this - but that, too, has been largely ignored) of more than 60 men who served with Kerry in Swift Boats. Although the book is #1 on the NYT Best-Seller list, there are still many bookstores that do not carry or display it. In Las Vegas, I personally found that "Unfit for Duty" was not on display at five different B&N and Borders bookstores - making it the only book on the NYT bestseller list so ignored by these stores. News reports from Virginia cite B&N and Borders stores who proudly proclaim that they will not carry the book, in spite of it's best-seller status and 550,000 (so far) press run.

FINALLY - The Kerry campaign has been demanding that the President suppress this one 527 group's right of free speech. This was manifested again recently when the campaign staged a lame "media event" at Crawford, misusing war vet/amputee (and Bush Administration appointee) Max Cleland in a Michael Moore-like effort to deliver a letter to the President, calling on him to illegally demand that the Swift Boat Veterans stop their ads. Illegal, because any coordination between the campaign and a 527 is against the law.

These efforts are all attempts - heavy-handed and of limited effectiveness - to deny the rights of free speech to 264 combat-decorated Vietnam Veterans who served with Senator Kerry, and who remember his service in a different light than does the Senator himself.

There is a good reason for all of this. At the time of the Democratic Convention, Senator Kerry and President Bush were running 50-50 among Veterans - but just before the second Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's ad hit, that same CBS poll showed Kerry down 18 points among Veterans. That's a huge drop, echoed in other major media-sponsored polls, and the drop hit in a short time. Such a swing among a major voting block could prove critical in such a tightly contested race.

Just how critical may be shown by the recent LA Times poll which, for the first time since Kerry became the presumptive nominee back in February, had Mr. Bush running ahead of Mr. Kerry - a five-point swing since the previous LA Times poll a couple of weeks before. Again, this switch in leadership was echoed in other major media-sponsored polls.

In the face of that kind of free-fall decline in poll numbers, one might understand why Senator Kerry might be tempted to try to suppress the opposition's free speech rights. Tempted, yes - but not to act. In our society, there is no justification strong enough to justify the suppression of political speech during a Presidential election.

BOTTOM LINE - If President Bush or his cronies had tried to stifle (not complain about, but actually suppress) the free speech rights of anybody on the Left, the media would be blowing Jericho's own trumpet (or should that be Joshua's own Trumpet?). But for the most part, the media are "mum" on this subject, apparently abjectly afraid to connect the dots and determine that Kerry and Cronies are undertaking an effort to suppress the free speech of a group of Americans, people who are (like Kerry himself) decorated combat veterans of Vietnam.

Such suppression of free speech is - and should be - anathema to all Americans, regardless of party, and to all who value free speech. Instead, it's being ignored, or wall-papered over, by the press who should be our first bastion of free speech protection.

For them, like Senator Kerry, the need to defeat George Bush seems to justify any action, no matter how ignoble or dangerous.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (, is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

As a political consultant and speechwriter, Barnett has worked for candidates and officials from both parties, as well as for public interest advocacy groups in areas involving the economy, the environment and healthcare. As a historian, Barnett is widely published in military history magazines, and has appeared a number of times on the History Channel, discussing military technology.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.

© 2004 – Ned Barnett
Barnett Marketing Communications