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Charlie Sykes: Sykes Writes

Criminalizing Free Speech (For Businessmen At Least)

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Seriously? Unions engage in political speech; Hollywood celebrities opine from the stage; teachers lecture from the podium.... From sea to shining sea, we are awash in political talk. But here in Milwaukee, the DA is investigating a letter about the election from a local businessman?

The Milwaukee County district attorney's office says it is open to looking into the circumstances of an email written by the chairman and owner of a Milwaukee industrial-equipment manufacturer that warned workers of the risks of voting for President Barack Obama.

Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf said Friday that his office is open to hearing from Rite-Hite employees who were upset with the email sent by Mike White, the firm's chairman and owner. He said his office needs "firsthand" knowledge of the email.

"We also have reached out to Mr. White and asked him for a copy of the email," Landgraf said.

Consider: if the investigation/prosecution proceeds, the Rite Hite CEO faces jail and a fine... for words. For thoughts. For political speech. Does that sound... American?

Rick Esenberg reminds us that we still have a constitution.

In our country, we have a very strong presumption against punishing speech. We allow for very few - and quite limited - exceptions. Courts are especially protective of core political speech, i.e., statements about issues and candidates. They are rigorously suspicion of any restrictions based on the content of speech. Restrictions on the content of core political speech are almost never upheld and, if they are to survive, must be narrowly tailored to serve the most compelling of state interests.

By its own terms, the statute does not apply to the Rite Hite e-mail. The e-mail did not say that the anything "will" happen or make any other "threat." It outlined the ways in which potential Obama policies might affect the company and how those impacts could harm its employees. In fact, the e-mail made clear that no employee would be prejudiced by the way in which he or she voted.

I appreciate that some will argue that the statute should be read broadly to apply to such a description. That won't happen. The reason is the constitutional protection of freedom of speech provided by the United States and Wisconsin Constitution.
A statement of opinion from an employer to an employee where the employer will have no way of knowing how any employee voted doesn’t even come close to the type of thing that would justify the suppression of political speech.

I cannot imagine that the DA would bring charges in this case. He certainly knows that they would be dismissed by return mail. We still believe in free speech here.



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