Bully Bobby Is No Friend Of Free Speech

Bully Bobby Is No Friend Of Free Speech

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at far-right rally against coronavirus restrictions in Berlin, Germany on November 18, 2020

With every day that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. runs his peculiar presidential campaign, he offers a display of delusional narcissism and feckless duplicity. Aside from drawing attention to himself, Kennedy seems to be trying to ensure the reelection of Donald Trump, provoking the suspicion that he shares Trump's toxic politics despite his own liberal heritage.

Whatever murky and destructive ideology Kennedy may espouse, however, everyone should understand by now that this aging nepo baby is definitely not what he has lately pretended to be: an implacable defender of free speech.

On April 1, he told CNN anchor Erin Burnett that Joe Biden is arguably "a much worse threat to democracy" than Trump, supposedly because the president has "used federal agencies to censor political speech." This muddled accusation stems from Kennedy's nefarious role during the pandemic, when social media platforms tried to mute his relentless promotion of anti-vaccination propaganda.

While Kennedy blames the Biden administration for "censoring" him, the private efforts of companies like Google and Facebook to block the deadly anti-vax disinformation — which earned heavy profits for Kennedy — didn't violate his First Amendment rights. At this point it's darkly comical to hear a candidate who appears nightly on television, while raking in huge subsidies from Trump's billionaire backers, whine about suppression of his message.

But there was a real attack on free speech that grew out of the pandemic. It was initiated by Kennedy himself and revealed deep flaws in his judgment and character.

In August 2020, a Daily Kos blogger writing under the name "Downeast Dem" posted an item about Kennedy's appearance at a rally in Berlin against the German government's COVID-19 restrictions. Both the article and the highly unflattering headline — "Anti-vaxxer RFK Jr. joins neo-Nazis in massive Berlin 'Anti-Corona' Protest" — accurately described the event, which was sponsored by an antisemitic and Nazi-adjacent organization called Querdenken.

The Berlin protest, its dubious sponsors and supporters, and Kennedy's role as a speaker were all reported in large media outlets, including CBS News, The New York Times, and the big German daily Der Tagesspiegel, whose story was linked by Downeast Dem.

While Kennedy didn't go after any of those media outlets, he angrily threatened Daily Kos and the anonymous blogger, seeking to force them to pull down the post. He demanded a million-dollar payoff to go away. He filed a defamation lawsuit against the blogger and another action aiming to force Daily Kos to disclose the blogger's identity.

Major civil liberties and news organizations pushed back, aiming to protect a fundamental First Amendment principle that defends anonymous commentary — unless and until that anonymity is found to cloak a violation of law or an actual defamation."

Kennedy "went after someone he thought couldn't defend himself," says Markos Moulitsas, the Daily Kos founder and proprietor. In response, Moulitsas tried to bait Kennedy into suing him, posting a headline mocking the anti-vax attorney for "cavorting with Nazis," and daring him to pick on someone his own size. But Kennedy didn't bite, and his lawsuit, filed in the wrong jurisdiction and bereft of merit, ultimately failed. His latest move is an attempt to escape paying the court costs borne by victims of his harassing litigation.

Much like Trump, whom he pretends to oppose, Bobby is a bully. He demands absolute free speech for himself, even when he is defaming his betters and endangering public health. But he tried mightily to curtail the free speech of a private citizen who dared to criticize him — and might be small enough to push around.

The irony of Kennedy's costly intimidation campaign was that many more people learned about his obnoxious alliance with the German far right. The Daily Kos community rallied to support its embattled member and the principle he embodied. Nobody, including Moulitsas, believes the law should protect lawbreakers or defamers. (His staff takes down defamatory and illegal posts all the time.) Yet he still sees anonymous speech as a fundamental liberty and spent a lot of money defending it.

As for Kennedy, he is certainly no friend of freedom. He has become an ally of far-right authoritarians here and abroad, from Mar-a-Lago to the Kremlin, who will be thrilled if his spoiler campaign helps return Trump to the White House.

Reprinted with permission from Creators Syndicate

Joe Conason is founder and editor-in-chief of The National Memo.He is also editor-at-large of Type Investigations, a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom formerly known as The Investigative Fund, and a senior fellow at Type Media Center. His forthcoming book, The Longest Con: How Grifters, Swindlers and Frauds Hijacked American Conservatism, will be published by St. Martin's Press in July.

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