When a Congressman Tried to Censor FEE

January 8, 2023   |   Tags:

In 1949, the US Congress’s Special Committee on Lobbying began investigated the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). As historian David Beito wrote, committee staffers, “armed with a dragnet subpoena, arrived in force at FEE’s headquarters in early 1949” where they "rummaged through FEE’s offices” for a week. The next year, FEE’s president and founder Leonard E. Read was summoned to appear before the committee.

What made such an inquisition especially egregious was that FEE was, is, and has never been a lobbying organization. As Read said in his Congressional testimony:

“The organization which I represent is a non-profit research and educational institution. Its sole purpose is a search for truth in economics, political science and related subjects. It is that, and nothing more—an institution for learning.”

Read founded FEE to pursue education and not political action because he believed the truth would set the world free and rejected "the notion that vanishing liberty can be restored merely by an increased or stepped-up political activity.” He wrote that:

“The out-front folks in political parties are but thermometers—indicators of the political temperature. Change the temperature and there will be a change in what’s out front—naturally and spontaneously. The only purpose in keeping an eye on the thermometer is to know what the temperature is. If the underlying influential opinion—the temperature—is interventionist, we’ll have interventionists in public office regardless of the party labels they may choose for their adornment and public appeal.

If the underlying influential opinion—the temperature—is libertarian, we’ll have spokesmen for libertarianism in public office. Nor will all the king’s horses and all the king’s men be able to alter the reading of the political thermometer one whit.”

Read created FEE to share economic and philosophical truth far and wide, which he believed would shift the climate of opinion toward liberty and away from limitless government.

Unsurprisingly, those who favor limitless government don't take too kindly to such a mission.

As Beito reported, one of the country's best-read columnists of the time blasted FEE for “flooding the country with propaganda aimed at undermining the Marshall Plan, rent control, aid to education, and Social Security.”

Someone else who also resented FEE's influence was Rep. Frank Buchanan of Pennsylvania, the chair of the committee on lobbying that investigated FEE. Buchanan was a proponent of the big-government Fair Deal agenda, President Harry S. Truman’s sequel to the sweeping New Deal of his predecessor President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Buchanan was apparently aware of—and feared—the power of opinion that Read believed in, because he defined lobbying broadly and conveniently to include activities that had an indirect influence on legislation through influencing public opinion. That was how he justified using his committee on lobbying to target FEE as well as other groups that printed and voiced public criticisms of government over-reach. In his testimony, Read eloquently called out this abuse of language to Buchanan himself, saying that, under the committee’s broad definition:

“’Lobbying’… becomes synonymous with communication of thought—all thought. The Bible communicates ideas that may affect legislation. The words of every teacher, of every minister of the gospel, of every person, here or elsewhere, are communicated thoughts having possible effects on legislation. The list is endless.’”

And W. C. Mullendore, FEE trustee and mentor to Read, wrote a letter to Buchanan making it plain that he knew exactly what the legislator was doing:

“Those who seek to extend the power of Government try to close the mouths of citizens who dare to oppose or to inform public opinion on the dangers involved, and one of the most effective means of accomplishing this subversive objective is to intimidate, through harassing investigations and smearing innuendos, the efforts of citizens to defend themselves. Your inquisitorial and extremely burdensome demand for information which you have no moral right to demand is a most alarming example of the use of this means of intimidation.”

If Mullendore were alive today, he probably would not be surprised in the slightest to read the Twitter Files, which revealed numerous cases of politicians and government agencies trying to surreptitiously censor critics and dissenters through intimidation.

For example, Rep. Adam Schiff of California “asked” Twitter to ban a journalist who had been critical of Schiff and his House committee. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out:

“Adam Schiff is… the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee - with immense power over Big Tech and FBI/CIA - so when he "requests" that Big Tech platforms ban journalists who are his critics, it's inherently coercive…”

Fortunately, Leonard Read and his people at FEE were too principled and courageous to be intimidated. As FEE staffer Bettina Bien Greaves reported:

“The Buchanan hearings interrupted but did not deter FEE from its educational goal. The Foundation went quietly on its way trying to erode the rock of pro-government public opinion with the written and spoken word.”

Still undeterred, FEE has continued that mission to this day.

For more on censorship through surreptitious intimidation, see this pre-Twitter-Files essay co-authored by me and Liam McCollum.


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