GOP Senate Streisands Elizabeth Warren And Coretta King In Attempt To Silence Her

from the oops dept

We've covered all kinds of stories about the Streisand Effect here at Techdirt, for the obvious reason that our overlord originally coined the term. From individuals to professional sports leagues to celebrities, there is something of a pantheon in these pages of those that attempt to silence speech or coverage they don't like which instead results in much wider coverage of that speech or coverage. But I can't seem to find an instance where we've had the opportunity to ding an entire wing of a congressional body for failing to understand how all of this works before.

And so it is with great pride that I am able to bring you the story of how the Senate silenced Elizabeth Warren as she read a letter authored by Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow during the debate over confirming fellow Senator Jeff Sessions as Trump's Attorney General.

The rebuke of Warren came after the Massachusetts Democrat read a letter written 30 years ago by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., opposing the nomination of Jeff Sessions for a federal judgeship. Warren cited the letter during a debate on the nomination of Sessions -- now an Alabama senator -- as Donald Trump's attorney general. Reading from King's letter to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986, Warren said: "Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge."

Republicans cried foul -- charging that Warren violated Senate rules against impugning another senator. A vote along party lines upheld that decision, turning what could have been an ordinary late-night partisan floor speech for political devotees into a national story.

We'll get to that last bit in just a moment, but let's not fail to point out how silly the application of this rule is and what it means for the prospect of sitting Senators filling cabinet positions. If Senate rules prohibit another Senator form impugning a cabinet appointee during the debate over that appointee's cabinet nomination, what would be the point of the debate? And keep in mind that Warren was not going on some self-authored tirade. She was reading a letter from the widow of the single most recognized civil rights leader, which was sent to Congress in the past -- though Senator Strom Thurmond refused to put it into the Congressional record. That letter still had a hand in defeating a previous nomination of Sessions to judgeship. In February, which is Black History Month. This is banal as it gets.

Separately, Senators complained about Warren quoting former Senator Ted Kennedy on his opposition to Sessions back in 1986. So, apparently the rule is that even if you're quoting former Senators and people closely associated with the civil rights movement, you can't say anything that might upset a sitting Senator, even if it was discussed previously in the Senate and now as part of the debate over his own nomination to be Attorney General.

Of course, by invoking this rarely used Senate rule, one which has previously been ignored, Senator Warren and King's letter is splashing headlines all over the place. On top of that, Warren and others rushed to social media circles to make sure the letter was heard by everyone who would listen. Which, given the way all of this is trending on social media, was a great many people.

Warren went straight from the Senate floor to a call-in appearance on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show, a favorite of progressives. "I've been red-carded on Sen. Sessions. I'm out of the game of the Senate floor," she told Maddow.

She also read King's letter outside the Senate floor in a Facebook live video.

That Facebook live video now has over 7.5 million views. That seems like approximately 7.5 million more people than would have watched Warren's hour-long speech on C-SPAN.

We can leave politics aside completely and still shake our heads at how badly this attempt to silence Warren and the reading of the letter has gone for those that attempted the silencing. This is pure Streisand Effect at work, and it's being supercharged by those that raised the objection to the letter's reading, who don't seem to understand how easily this situation and their own words will be used against them.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defended evoking Rule 19, a rarely evoked chamber regulation that prohibits senators from impugning each other.

"She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted," the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor, delivering an instantly classic line -- the kind liberals imagine being replayed ad nauseum in TV ads in a future presidential campaign.

Again, this isn't about political teams. If you're in favor of Sessions, if you're a Republican, if you're a Trump voter, you should still be able to understand how bungled this whole thing was. Had there been no attempt to silence Warren, coverage of the letter being read likely would have registered as a curiosity at most. Instead, this thing is everywhere. Including below.

Reader Comments

The First Word

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  1. icon
    The Wanderer (profile), 10 Feb 2017 @ 5:37am

    Re: Re:

    When only one forum (or set of forums) matters, preventing you from speaking there is effectively the same as preventing you from speaking at all. Thus, the term "silenced" is entirely appropriate.

    In most cases, you have the option to seek or create alternative forums, and make those other forums matter - so "silenced" would not be an appropriate term in those cases. In this case, however, the only forum that matters is the Senate itself, because of its exclusive role in the decision at hand; there is only one forum where the decision will be made, and there is no realistic possibility of transferring that decision elsewhere.

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