Freezing Free Speech

Did you ever hear of anyone being threatened by the federal government just for writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper? Well, it's been happening to citizens all across the country who dared to question the policies of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). One of the functions of HUD is to build shelters for the homeless, the mentally ill, recovering drug addicts. These are all worthy projects, of course. But recently HUD has begun using fair-housing laws to mow down any local opposition to its planned projects. For example, in Berkeley, California, citizens questioned the wisdom of locating a homeless shelter near two bars. HUD officials responded by sending a harsh letter to one of the community organizers. They ordered her to stop fighting the project, to turn over everything she had written about the project, and to identify everyone who had joined the protest. If she didn't comply, HUD threatened her with fines of $50,000 and a year in jail. In Palatine, Illinois, city officials merely wanted to make sure that a home for former substance abusers would meet local safety and zoning standards. They, too, were bullied by HUD officials. In Seattle, Washington, a city ordinance required that social-service facilities be spaced at least a quarter-mile apart, in order to protect local neighborhoods from being overwhelmed. And yet the city approved a plan to locate five group homes for addicts and the mentally ill within a single city block. A neighborhood group sued the city for violating its own policies; that group is now under investigation by HUD. The good news is that in recent months a national outcry finally erupted over HUD's strong-arm tactics, and a House subcommittee ordered an investigation. Under pressure, HUD has recently backed down, adopting new guidelines that will curb some of the more draconian measures. But only some of them. Federal bureaucrats are remarkably resilient, and it looks as though confrontations will continue for some time between HUD and citizens practicing their First Amendment rights. And that raises serious questions about this administration's understanding of the role of government. At the founding of our nation, James Madison wrote, "The censorial power is in the people over the government, not in the government over the people." But HUD, it seems, is trying to turn this principle around, using its powers to harass and threaten citizens acting completely within the law—citizens exercising their right "to petition the government for a redress of grievances" (as the First Amendment puts it). HUD's arrogance serves to remind us that tyranny comes in all forms. Sometimes it comes with tanks and terrorism. But 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that even American democracy could develop into what he called "soft despotism"—where the government oversteps its constitutional powers. As Christians we respect government as an institution ordained by God. But we also champion the freedom of citizens to act on their own conscience and to hold government accountable. Americans who simply write a letter to the editor should never have to be afraid of the federal government trying to scare them into silence.


Chuck Colson


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