‘The Intimidation Game’: The Story Behind the Left’s Attacks on the First Amendment

July 29th, 2016 1:15 PM

This week’s Philadelphia convention is playing host to a string of Democratic speakers promising to alter the First Amendment, to give government more control over who can engage in politics. “The Intimidation Game,” tells the story behind those calls.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision freed up millions of Americans to again speak openly in elections. No longer able to bar their opponents from engaging in politics, and unable to win the public debate, the left adopted a new strategy: to intimidate and threaten their political opponents out of the arena. “The Intimidation Game” is the exposé of these tactics. It’s the first real telling of how Democrats used the IRS to shut down Tea Party groups and harass conservative donors. It’s the story of how liberal prosecutors persecute political opponents with investigations. It chronicles the rise of activist groups who mount blackmail and boycott campaigns against free-market groups. And it is a narrative of the average Americans who have also found themselves on target lists, forced to defend their Constitutional rights to take part in democracy.

Below is an excerpt, part of the story of how a Wisconsin prosecutor used secret subpoenas and predawn raids to threaten conservative groups and individuals who supported Gov. Scott Walker’s reforms. To read all of “The Intimidation Game: How the Left Is Silencing Free Speech” go now to Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.

ERIC O’KEEFE was on a visit to Madison, Wisconsin, on October 3, 2013, when his phone buzzed. It was a cryptic text from an old friend and colleague, political consultant R. J. Johnson. He indicated that O’Keefe should go see his attorneys. They were in possession of something he needed to see.

O’Keefe is the director of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conservative outfit that pushes for lower taxes and smaller government. The club had only just finished playing a role in defeating the 2011 and 2012 union-led recall efforts against Governor Scott Walker and Republican legislators. Its headquarters is in Madison, and so a few hours later O’Keefe met there with club attorneys. The lawyers definitely did have something he needed to see. A subpoena.

A six-page subpoena, to be exact, which informed O’Keefe that he was the target of an investigation by Wisconsin prosecutors for supposedly breaking campaign finance laws. O’Keefe admits that the full force of the document didn’t immediately hit him. But something did jump out.

The subpoena’s sweeping demands included all of O’Keefe’s correspondence going back to April 2009 with dozens of people—whose own names were listed on its first page. O’Keefe blinked at the length of time the document covered, but also at the list of names. Among several visible political figures were also listed lots of small vendors to, and fund-raisers for, the club. The government would have been hard pressed to know the club had such associations. “That’s when I realized they had been spying on us for some time. There was no way they could have had those names otherwise,” he says. He’d only later find out that prosecutors had already gone to all his Internet service providers and subpoenaed every conversation he’d ever had. They’d done the same to at least seventeen other people.

In addition to his correspondence, prosecutors wanted every document related to the club’s work on campaigns, and every draft of related material. And they didn’t just want documents related to Wisconsin. O’Keefe also works on national political issues; they wanted all that, too.

But the most sinister part of the subpoena was this: “This John Doe search warrant is issued subject to a secrecy order. By order of the court pursuant to a secrecy order that applies to this proceeding, you are hereby commanded and ordered not to disclose to anyone, other than your own attorney, the contents of the search warrant and or the fact that you have received this search warrant. Violation of the secrecy order is punishable as contempt of court.”

It was almost Orwellian. Prosecutors were using speech laws to go after O’Keefe, while simultaneously telling him he couldn’t speak to anyone about it. The conservative wasn’t sure at this point how serious this was—“my head was whirring”—but he had little doubt about its motivation: It was a revenge attack for the success his side had had in defeating the recent recalls. The club had been extremely cautious in its election work, making sure to go nowhere near any lines. So nothing else made sense.

O’Keefe called his wife, Leslie Graves. In doing so, he was already breaking the law. He didn’t care. O’Keefe has fought for the First Amendment his whole life, and in the time it had taken him to read the subpoena, he’d already decided that he’d never follow the gag order. Graves wasn’t sure what to think of the subpoena either, but suggested hopefully that it might just be some minor complaint—nothing to worry about.


Johnson, the political consultant who’d first texted O’Keefe, had been in Atlanta with his wife, fund-raising for a charity. His sixteen-year-old son was alone in their rural Dodge County home. In the dark morning hours of that Thursday, a Milwaukee County investigator ushered a troop of armed law enforcement officers into the house. Johnson’s son was not allowed to call his parents. He was not allowed to call his grandparents, who lived only a half mile away. The boy had the wits to ask to call a lawyer. He was told no. As Johnson would later sum up to the Wall Street Journal, “He was a minor and he was isolated by law enforcement.” Armed deputies stood by him while investigators tossed the house, hauling off documents and technology. Johnson’s son was told that the gag order applied to him. If he told anybody what had happened, he could go to jail. When he finally arrived at school, two hours late, he couldn’t tell anybody why he was so upset.

Deborah Jordahl, Johnson’s business partner, was still in bed at 6 a.m. when she heard noises and saw lights in the yard. An armed Dane County deputy sheriff rang her doorbell and presented her and her husband with a search warrant. Jordahl asked for permission to wake her children on her own, so they wouldn’t be scared. Permission denied. The deputy sheriff accompanied her into each room. Jordahl would later find out that her son, upon waking and seeing a police officer, thought for several minutes that his father was dead.

The deputy herded them all into the family room and read the warrant, including the gag order. Jordahl’s fifteen-year-old daughter sat on the sofa, weeping, as the deputy explained that the kids were also subject to consequences if they spoke. When the deputy was done, Jordahl got up to call her lawyer. The officer backed her onto the sofa and explained she wouldn’t be calling anyone. And indeed, Jordahl would have been hard pressed to do so even later. After going through every closet and drawer and combing through the basement and the family vehicles, the police department left with her phone, her husband’s phone, both their computers, the kids’ computers, hard drives, iPods, an e-reader, a voice recorder, pocket calendars, and her files.

When people hear the story of these predawn raids, they are appalled and outraged to think this happened in America, and over allegations of campaign finance regulations. O’Keefe and Johnson and Jordahl weren’t accused of murder, or racketeering, or drug-running, or some elaborate white-collar crime. They were accused (falsely, as would be proven), and subpoenaed, and searched, for supposedly violating highly technical speech rules. About 95 percent of such cases are handled in civil proceedings. It is extremely rare for a campaign finance violation to trigger a criminal prosecution, and only then when it is clear that an actor deliberately and elaborately schemed to evade the law. Even then, it is unheard of for such an accusation to initiate police raids, isolation, and denial of legal counsel.

These are the tactics the left will continue to use until they realize their dream of again outright forbidding their opposition from speaking. The best defense conservative and free-market Americans have against this game is to be aware of what's coming, and to continue to speak out.

Tell the Truth 2016