It used to be called a whisper campaign.
It was where the dirtiest, dumbest, most disreputable rumors about political candidates went to die. The ones that the dirt peddlers were too ashamed to put their names on. The ones intended to mislead, or divert or smear – to capture the attention of the poorly informed or the easily misled.
They were last refuge of desperate, political scoundrels.
I think so-and-so’s a lesbian. Whisper whisper. So-and-so had a DUI 20 years ago. Whisper whisper. You should check out so-and-so’s divorce papers. Whisper whisper. So-and-so drinks his own bathwater.
You didn’t hear it from me.
In the days before social media, whisper campaigns sometimes crept into the news and sometimes died on the vine, starved of the facts or context or relevance journalists might be looking for to run a fair, useful story. These days, though, all it takes to give a whisper campaign life is someone willing to toss their good name into a frothy barnyard stew on the internet.
Enter Stephanie Cates, chair of the Spokane County GOP.
After weeks of local conservatives, including at least one prominent elected official, attempting to pitch a smear to reporters on City Councilman Breean Beggs, and getting no bites, Cates posted a slimy attack on Facebook on Tuesday night.
She said she was doing so as a concerned citizen, not the leader of the local GOP.
As if that was a hat she could just take off.
The post deals with Beggs’ volunteer representation of Bellingham newsstand owners 20 years ago – a free-speech case that he won along with a team of several other attorneys, and for which the prosecutor was later fined $1.3 million.
The store had been charged with obscenity for selling a crude satirical magazine that graphically depicted rape and torture; Beggs didn’t represent the publisher or creators, but did argue that the work wasn’t legally pornographic as part of a team of attorneys.
Reading the Facebook post, and doing just a little bit of research, I came to think Cates either didn’t understand the case or didn’t want Spokane voters to understand it. In an interview Wednesday, she said she heard the information from another citizen, and thought it was important for voters to know.
She said it’s relevant in part because we’re living in a time of increased discussion of hate speech and free speech, and a time of focus on sexual assault. Her post cited some of the truly vulgar, violent content of the magazine, and she said in the interview that she thinks that rape survivors would be deeply offended by it, and that she would consider it hate speech against women. She said it seems there is a double standard at work in refusing to view this matter in those terms.
She said that given Beggs’ position that public leaders should denounce hate speech, that this is contradictory information important to voters, and that he also defended the content as satirical and constitutionally protected.
She said the magazine was an example of “quote ‘rape culture.’ ”
(When you hear someone from the right, in the days right before an election with regard to an opponent, pretending to be sincere about rape culture – particularly when they actually say “quote ‘rape culture’ ” – be skeptical.)
In her post, she misstated Beggs’ connection to the magazine and omitted a lot of the facts. She invoked Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement. She treats the subject as if it were a secret she unearthed, something shameful and hidden, when it’s been a matter of intense conservative whispering for weeks now, and when she must – or should – know it was covered prominently in the news media at the time of the trial.
She acts like it’s something Beggs should be ashamed of.
“I’m proud of the work I did,” he said. “I would do it again.”
He’s not talking about the content of the magazine when he says that. He’s talking about the Constitution.
Here is the story of the magazine, the shop owners, and Beggs’ work on the case:
A short-lived magazine called “Answer Me!,” produced by a Portland couple, published a “rape issue” in 1995, and a copy of the issue arrived with a bulk magazine order at the Bellingham store The Newsstand, according to news reports from the time.
The content of the magazine was created by people who said they were victims of sex abuse themselves, and who said it was intended – in graphic, offensive fashion – to be a critique of rape and rape culture.
You may not buy their argument or favor their form of expression, but it does seem patently clear that the intention was not a prurient endorsement of rape. And the key question was not whether this was appropriate content or not – whether it’s offensive (it is) or hateful (it may well be) – but whether the government could prevent the store from selling it, and exercise ongoing control over the store’s offerings.
If you can’t tease apart those issues, then this smear is for you.
The owners of the store were charged with obscenity – after the prosecutor threatened them with prison if they would not agree to refuse to sell any such material again, to be evaluated by him.
A jury acquitted them, finding the magazine did not meet the legal definition of pornography, according to news accounts. Another jury later fined the prosecutor $1.3 million for violating the First Amendment rights of the bookstore owners and retaliatory prosecution.
In other words, Beggs voluntarily defended small business owners against unconstitutional overreach by a prosecutor. Free-speech advocates celebrate the victory to this day.
It’s campaign season, and ethics vanish as Election Day approaches. It was ever thus. But this move by Cates and the cowardly whisper machine is a different order of sleazy – gratuitously false in its selection of sensational details over accurate information, cynically insincere in the manner in which it attempts to piggyback onto a serious subject.
Beggs isn’t the one who ought to be ashamed of himself.