Veteran journalist: GOP tries to use government power to cancel the First Amendment

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Delta CEO Ed Bastian. Photo: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Last month, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian took the bold step of daring to criticize the actions of the Georgia General Assembly. As Bastian put it in a memo to Delta employees, Georgia had just enacted legislation “that could make it harder for many Georgians, particularly those in our Black and brown communities, to exercise their right to vote,” and he considered that unacceptable.

“The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections,” Bastian wrote. “This is simply not true. Unfortunately, that excuse is being used in states across the nation that are attempting to pass similar legislation to restrict voting rights.”

Set aside, for a moment, your thoughts about the merits of that legislation and consider what happened next. The 2021 General Assembly was by then in its final hours, yet the Georgia House still found time to hastily draft and approve legislation that would raise jet-fuel taxes on Delta by an estimated $40 million a year. The tax hike didn’t become law, largely because the Senate didn’t have time to take it up before adjournment. But House Republican leaders were quite clear that they intended the bill as punishment for Bastian’s statement.

“As all of you know, I can’t resist a country boy line or two: You don’t feed a dog that bites your hand,” House Speaker David Ralston said of Delta. “You’ve got to keep that in mind.”

We hear a lot of complaining these days about a supposed “cancel culture,” most of it coming from conservatives who believe they’re being censored or punished for unpopular opinions. They seem to believe that under the First Amendment, they have the right to say racist things, sexist things and blatantly false and dangerous things without suffering any consequence. That’s not true and it has never been true. Expressing unpopular opinions has always come with a price, and the First Amendment guarantees only that government won’t be the one exacting that price.

However, when state political leaders threaten to use the power of taxation to try to silence people or corporations who criticize them, as legislators have done with Delta, then we’ve got a real First Amendment problem. That’s direct government suppression of political speech, and it’s a lot more widespread than just Georgia.

For example, after Major League Baseball announced it was moving its annual All-Star game from Atlanta to Colorado, in protest against the same election law that Delta and other companies have condemned, Republican members of Congress announced that they would try to punish baseball by stripping it of its valuable longtime anti-trust exemption. Again, they seek to use the power of government to punish those taking a particular political stance.

In addition, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a man who has long championed the idea that corporations should have the same rights as human beings to participate in politics, is now telling those same corporations to shut up but keep the financial donations flowing, threatening “serious consequences” if they do not.

“My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics,” McConnell said last week.

That’s pretty hilarious. For generations now, the partnership between corporate America and the Republican Party has been considered unshakable, and McConnell has been at the center of it. The fact that the alliance is now failing, that this week even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced its endorsement of 23 Democratic House members for re-election, offers proof of how radical and out of the mainstream the modern Republican Party has become.

The race-baiting, the utter disdain for truth, the embrace of violence as an implied if not actual source of political leverage, the attacks on elections, the erratic governance and rejection of science – much of corporate America wants nothing to do with any of it. Corporate leaders know that a diverse America is both their customer base and their employee base, their source of future profits and stability, and when forced to take sides, Republicans are making that choice easy for them.

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He now contributes to the Georgia Recorder, which first published this essay.

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