Michael Bloomberg, Frequently Exhausted Champion of Civil Liberties


In a post at The Atlantic that I initially took to be a joke because it is headlined "Michael Bloomberg, Tireless Champion of Civil Liberties," Wendy Kaminer praises the New York mayor's support for the First Amendment, which she suggests outweighs the paternalistic meddling exemplified by his widely derided restrictions on soda servings. Kaminer is right that Bloomberg has taken admirable stances on freedom of speech:

When the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] was under court order to accept a series of provocative anti-Muslim ads in subway stations, Bloomberg shrugged: "I assume [they'll] do what the courts ordered them to do." [He also noted that "as Americans, we tolerate things that we find despicable."]

When other big-city, pro-gay-rights mayors threatened to bar Chick-fil-A from their domains, Bloomberg schooled them on free speech: "You really don't want to ask political beliefs or religious beliefs before you issue a permit. That's just not government's job." [Katherine Mangu-Ward noted his commendable remarks here.]

When 10 members of the New York City Council threatened to withdraw funding from Brooklyn College because it dared to sponsor a discussion of boycotts and sanctions against Israel, Bloomberg snorted, "If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea."

Bloomberg took a principled stand in each of these cases, defending people's right to say things with which he personally disagreed. Regarding the MTA ads (which actually condemned "jihad," as opposed to Muslims generally), his attitude was a notable improvement on the position taken by his immediate predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, who famously asked the MTA to remove a New York magazine ad that (gently) mocked him from its buses. The result was a 1997 federal appeals court decision rejecting such content-based restrictions, which was cited by the federal judge who overturned the MTA's refusal to run the anti-jihad ads. Those ads, by the way, were sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a group that conspicuously opposed construction of the so-called Ground Zero mosque. That was another First Amendment controversy in which Bloomberg distinguished himself, offering a stirring defense of religious freedom.

In light of these examples, "Michael Bloomberg, Defender of the First Amendment" would have been an apt title for Kaminer's post. But even if you don't count the right to control what goes into your body as a civil liberty, "Michael Bloomberg, Tireless Champion of Civil Liberties" goes way too far. As Kaminer concedes, Bloomberg has not been a very good friend to the rest of the Bill of Rights. A founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and a funder of pro-gun-control candidates, he has never met a firearm restriction he did not like, which certainly casts doubt on his commitment to defending the Second Amendment. Nor is he a fan of the Fifth Amendment's protections for property rights, to judge by his vigorous defense of broad eminent domain powers. But the biggest problem with any attempt to portray Bloomberg as a champion of civil liberties is his obvious lack of enthusiasm for the Fourth Amendment.

Bloomberg, despite his own youthful enjoyment of cannabis, has presided over a huge surge in arrests for "public display" of marijuana, many of them illegal because the pot came into open view only as a result of police intervention. After Gov. Andrew Cuomo took on the issue last year, Bloomberg suddenly voiced support for decriminalizing public display, which he falsely claimed would be consistent with current police practices. And as Kaminer notes, civil libertarians "deplore his defense of repressive stop-and-frisk policies." That defense has been notable not only because Bloomberg always comes down on the side of more police power but because the billionaire Harvard MBA dismisses anyone who disagrees with him as a pointy-headed pontificator insulated from the reality of the streets. Bloomberg implicitly concedes that New York cops routinely stop and frisk people without the "reasonable suspicion" that the Supreme Court has said is required by the Fourth Amendment. He just doesn't think such legal niceties matter when you're fighting crime. "Tireless Champion of Civil Liberties"? Not so much.

So is Kaminer kidding after all? Her hyperbole may have been a deliberate attempt to lure outraged Bloomberg critics, in which case I totally fell for it.