Opinion: Free speech for me, not for Delta

This week, Republican legislative leaders succeeded in killing a $40 million tax break that they were about to grant Delta Air Lines. Their reason? Delta had decided to end discounts it had offered to members of the National Rifle Association, and for that egregious act, Georgia conservatives decided that the company had to be punished.

“Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back,” as Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle put it Monday.

It is one thing to “fight back,” as Cagle put it. It is something else entirely to use government as a weapon in that battle.

In fact, later that very day, those very same Georgia Republicans, under Cagle’s leadership, passed a bill that lectures state colleges and universities about the importance of free expression on their campuses, and that demands punishment of students who try to block that free expression.

In Senate Bill 339, Georgia Republicans haughtily instruct college officials and the Board of Regents that “it is not the proper role of the institution to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, including, without limitation, ideas and opinions which they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

The Senate further demands that “a range of disciplinary sanctions shall be established for anyone under the jurisdiction of the institution who materially and substantially interferes with the free expression of others.” It warns that “no institution may deny a student organization any benefit or privilege available to other campus student organizations … based on the content of that organization’s expression.”

Again, this came hours after the same Senate had denied Delta a $40 million tax cut “based on the content of that organization’s expression.” They are demanding that 19- or 20-year-old college students be suspended, expelled or otherwise punished for doing precisely the same thing that they themselves, as adults, are bragging about doing to Delta.

Amazing.

Back in the Obama administration, conservatives made a huge spectacle of allegations that the IRS had used the tax code to penalize conservative political groups. At the time, Democrats up to and including President Obama agreed that if the allegations were true, that would indeed be just cause for outrage, but they questioned the accuracy of the claim. (In the end, an inspector general’s investigation linked the mistakes to poor management in an under-resourced agency, not to political partisanship, and upon taking office the Trump Department of Justice tried to find grounds to prosecute in the case but could not.)

Today, Georgia Republicans are doing precisely what they claimed to be outraged about in the IRS case — using the tax code to penalize opinions they do not like — but what’s striking to me is that they are doing so proudly, openly, without regret or second thought. Even though they wield control of every lever of power in the state and federal government, and even though the NRA has long dictated gun policy in this country, at the slightest sign of a setback they use their well-honed sense of persecution to justify acts that they would find reprehensible if used against them.

We live in a strange country these days. The once-useful notion of shame has been escorted to the border by armed guards and warned never to return, and hypocrisy abounds. But I am hard-pressed to cite an example of that hypocrisy more egregious than that perpetrated right here in Atlanta, Georgia.

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