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City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is having a rough week so far. For one thing, new Quinnipiac poll shows the mayoral front-runner’s numbers hitting a five-month low. She’s also facing a new attack ad paid for by a coalition of labor and animal-rights groups.
The ad got some media attention early this week as the first outside ad to run in the mayoral race. But it didn’t really grab anyone’s attention until Quinn herself Streisand-Effected the thing to the top of the city’s political discourse.
Rather than limiting herself to disputing the advertisement’s allegations, say, or running an advertisement of its own, the Quinn campaign lashed out, sending a threatening-sounding cease-and-desist letter to NY1, the Time Warner news channel, which is among the stations airing the ad.
“Your station need not air the subject ad. If you choose to do so, however, your station bears responsibility for its content,” Quinn’s lawyer wrote ominously to the station.
Asked about it later, Quinn doubled down, NY1 reports:
“You’re not allowed to just put up false ads that have incorrect information about candidates,” she said. “That’s simply not what you’re allowed to do in an election context, and we’re making that clear to the news media out there. It’s also just wrong for there to be anonymous ads out there. They have no place in our system.”
Time Warner says its lawyers are considering the letter, but outside observers say she doesn’t have a case. The Voice asked Floyd Abrams, a leading first-amendment lawyer whose career has ranged from representing the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case to arguing for corporate “speech” rights in Citizen United, what he made of Quinn’s threats. Here’s what he said:
“Candidates for public office who warn the news media about broadcasting ads critical of them generally wind up ruing the day they did so and I’m confident that will be the case here. Political ads serve a vital First Amendment function and candidates who are attacked should answer rather than trying to suppress speech. Whether the subject is term limits or anything else, the media and all of us are given the widest leeway since, as the Supreme Court has observed, the First Amendment “has its fullest and most urgent applications to speech uttered during a campaign for political office.”
That said, a broadcaster or cable company could only be legally liable if it broadcast a false (not debatable) statement of fact (not opinion) about a candidate that it basically knew to be false. This is a deliberately demanding standard and the notion that broadcasting the ads that Council President Quinn objects to, whether submitted anonymously or not, puts any station at peril is contrary to well-established First Amendment law.”
This isn’t the first time Quinn has responded to speech she doesn’t like by trying to suppress it. Three quick examples from recent years:
In 2007, she wrote a letter to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger telling him to disinvite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. “While I appreciate your efforts as a nationally recognized first-amendment scholar, the idea of Ahmadinejad as an honored guest anywhere in our city is offensive to all New Yorkers,” she wrote. “He can say whatever he wants on any street corner, but should not be given center state at one of New York’s most prestigious centers of higher education.”
Last July, she called on New York University President John Sexton to evict Chick-fil-A a restaurant whose owner backs homophobic organizations.
Then, in February, Quinn (along with several of her fellow candidates for mayor) sent an absurd letter to the Political Science Department of Brooklyn College demanding that they interfere with a student-organized panel on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and mandate equal time for people who disagree. (Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin’s response to the demand elegantly illustrated the wrongheadedness and hypocrisy of Quinn’s stance.)
Quinn’s track record of trying to silence voices she doesn’t like shades into the more general criticism of her as a bully, laid out at great and entertaining length in a recent New York Times profile and illustrated audibly in this series of phone messages from 2002.
Lawyers working for networks airing the new ad are expected to make a statement later today. We’ll update when they do.