With Yale and the University of Missouri in the midst of high-profile free speech meltdowns, the national media is fixated on why left-wing college students have grown so intolerant of dissent. But far less attention is being paid to an even more dangerous example of this illiberalism: the growing determination among Democratic politicians to investigate and punish companies that dispute the majority view of scientists on climate change. New York’s attorney general Eric Schneiderman has subpoenaed documents from Exxon Mobil related to the company’s advocacy against greenhouse gas regulation, and both Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have called for the federal government to get involved. Bloomberg View’s centrist editorial board is, appropriately, alarmed:
Regulating emissions is a job for politicians — and they’re failing. That’s frustrating, and in the absence of effective government action, there’s an added moral obligation on companies to act. Even so, engaging in scientific research and public advocacy shouldn’t be crimes in a free country. Using the criminal law to shame and encumber companies that do so is a dangerous arrogation of power.
As Jonathan Chait wrote yesterday, “it is possible—and, for many sympathizers on the left, convenient—to dismiss [the events at Yale and U. of Missouri] as just so much college high jinks.” But as the Exxon case shows, the illiberal left is not confined to college campuses—it is slowly spreading outward, and even starting to capture mainstream Democratic politicians. Campus “safe spaces” might not directly threaten America’s open society, but the same cannot be said of state and federal prosecutions of organizations for their political advocacy on one of the major public policy questions of our time. Threats to freedom of speech must be confronted wherever they arise.