Paleoconservatives often refer to “the limits of permissible dissent” in describing the struggle to hold on to their views in the realms of the media and academia against the censure of both the left and the “mainstream” right. Now, this struggle has been extended into the realm of the internet, the supposed last frontier of unregulated speech and capitalism. Indeed, we may be witnesses, as Frederick Jackson Turner would say, to the closing of this frontier, not just because of the collapse of the dot-com economy but because of the new limits imposed on speech and content, which will only become more pronounced as the War on Terrorism progresses.
In 1996, Fresno, California, resident and internet surfer Jim Robinson had a problem: His posts on Prodigy message boards and chat rooms, particularly his strong criticisms of President Bill Clinton, were being censored by Prodigy’s administrators. So he started his own website—Free Republic (www.freerepub-lic.com).
Free Republic was more than just an ordinary message board in the early settlement of the internet. Surfers could post whole articles from publications and make them topics of discussion and debate. And it was more than just another chat room. Free Republic’s likeminded members could be connected from across the country to organize activist projects and events. In 1998, when many Republicans wanted to ignore Kenneth Starr’s report on the Clinton scandals rather than deal with its charges, Free Republic members (or “Freepers,” as they call themselves) lit up the congressional phones and organized demonstrations that influenced Republicans in the House to vote for articles of impeachment. And it was the Freepers, not the GOP, who organized the demonstrations of conservatives down in Florida during the 2000 presidential vote recount.
Over 60,000 people have been registered members of Free Republic, the largest conservative-oriented website in the world. Members are a diverse lot: in-dependents, Republicans, libertarians, (large “L” and small), neocons, paleocons, Buchanan Brigaders, Keyes supporters—and everything in between. Even such prominent pundits as Justin Raimondo, Ann Coulter, Barbara Olson, and Lucianne Goldberg (known by her Freeper handle, “Trixie,”) have made frequent posts.
As in any frontier boomtown, however, with rapid growth came predictable problems. Some of the articles posted on the site came from racist or antisemitic websites. Conspiracy theorists also made use of Free Republic. Leftists began to infiltrate the site, posting articles or posing as conservatives to act as agents provocateurs. “Vanity posts” became more frequent, and flame wars among members became more intense, as the site split into factions during the 2000 presidential election. Overall, civility degenerated. Some members became concerned that Free Republic had become a virtual hangout for kooks. Matters came to a head in early 2000 when Robinson (or “JimRob”) speculated on George W. Bush’s connection to the airport in Mena, Arkansas, where drug- and gun-running allegedly took place during the 1980’s. Matt Drudge then dropped Free Republic’s link from the Drudge Report, and Goldberg took 2,000 members with her to start her own Lucianne.com.
Robinson decided to clean up his website and, like any good sheriff, deputized a posse of site moderators to remove offensive posts, threads, and articles and to ban those who posted them. But they did not stop there. Soon, they had banned the posting of any articles from certain websites that they deemed taboo, such as VDare.com (“too divisive”), LewRockwell.com, DixieNet.org (the League of the South’s website), and the Free State Project’s website (www.FreeStateProject.org).
It would be easy to conclude that Robinson and his monitors simply went overboard in an effort to clean up the excesses of Free Republic, but there is more to it than that.
Because of its significant growth, Free Republic costs $240,000 annually to maintain. As a non-profit, Free Republic depends on donors, large and small, for its survival. No doubt the embarrassment of being dropped from the Drudge Report and Goldberg’s public break with the site concerned Robinson, and he feared that funds might dry up if his site were perceived to be on the fringe. In addition, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times sued Free Republic for copyright infringement. (The case was settled out of court.) It was only natural for Robinson and his site administrators to want to look good for prospective donors.
With so many posters banned, the diversity of thought on Free Republic has been reduced to the musings of neoconservatives, Zionists, Republicans who act as if Free Republic were an annex of GOP headquarters, those who consider George W. Bush a demigod and offer daily prayers to him, and other sycophants and cheerleaders. Robinson has made it clear where he stands: “I see that the only Party capable of blocking and defeating the evil Democrats is the Republican Party. I see that many races are so close that as little as a one percent siphon of conservative votes to a third party could be the difference between success and failure. I see allowing a Democrat to remain in power when it could have been prevented as a triumph of evil.”
Many banned Freepers have turned to such sites as Liberty Post (www.libertypost.org) and Liberty Forum (www.libertyforum.org), where members can post articles from anywhere and comment with-out interference from the thought police or fear of Siberian banishment. But Free Republic will still remain the 800-pound gorilla of conservative websites for some time, just as National Review has been for conservative magazines, despite being watered down. Frontiers, whether on land or in cyberspace, cannot survive when developers start plotting out the fence-rows.