I support Utah Sen. Mike Lee.
His constitutionalism, his work on criminal justice reform, his defense of the First Amendment, his social capital project focusing on family and community — I applaud them all.
That’s why, for me, the nature of Lee’s weeks-long social media crusade against KSL.com has been so disorienting.
As The Salt Lake Tribune reported last week, “on his personal Facebook page, Lee has repeatedly criticized KSL.com and The Associated Press” for “bias” and “has gone so far as to call for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to sell the news website, creating the hashtag #sellKSL.”
Certainly, a conservative complaining about media bias is nothing new. And Lee has every right to parry with the press.
But what concerns me is the practical impact on lived religious freedom and speech that can occur when a sitting U.S. senator — with the weight of elected office — publicly and repeatedly seeks to pressure a religious organization to sell a media property. Such efforts, no matter how well-intentioned, can only have a chilling effect.
We often talk about religious freedom and the First Amendment in terms of abstract legal opinions and policies. But the direct speech and actions of a lawmaker can be just as impactful.
Initially, I wasn’t alarmed at all by Lee’s Facebook forays into critiquing KSL.com. I more or less agreed with them.
As a contributor and former editor for the Deseret News (which, like KSL.com is run by the church-owned Deseret Management Corp.) I encountered plenty of letters expressing frustration about biased AP stories.
So, it came as no surprise when Lee took issue with a tweet from KSL.com characterizing an AP story about the passing of Robert Trump, the president’s younger brother. The tweet (and AP story) described Robert as “a businessman known for an even keel that seemed almost incompatible with the family name.”
Lee called the tweet “appalling” and disrespectful. Fair enough. I, too, found the editorializing gratuitous.
But, to KSL.com’s credit it later deleted the tweet and edited the AP story, issuing a public apology. But, Lee’s criticisms were only just beginning. As The Tribune’s story details, Lee followed up with a steady rhythm of posts meted out over the next several weeks.
With all that’s going on in the country, one would think that thoroughly monitoring KSL.com wouldn’t be such a priority for a sitting U.S. senator.
But, alas, in yet another post about yet another AP article on KSL.com, Lee seized on the fact that the word “destruction” — used in reference to the aftermath of violent protests in Kenosha, Wisc. — had been placed in quotation marks.
“I find this highly offensive that the media empire owned by my Church does things like this,” Lee wrote on Facebook, “#sellKSL.”
Conservatives have sometimes prided themselves on not being so easily “triggered.”
But, to be fair, there’s plenty of evidence that media outlets are less than evenhanded toward conservatives generally and the president specifically. So, I’m willing to give Lee the benefit of the doubt when it comes to policing the referees.
But, after three or four or five posts not just complaining about KSL.com, but adding specific language directed at its church owner, the dynamic begins to shift, especially as the conversation is extending to Brigham Young University (where I teach). Lee recently asked his followers, for example, whether BYU professors were “liberal or conservative” in comparison “to the Church and its members?”
The press, the academy and even faith-based institutions shouldn’t be shielded from criticism. And, in fact, I sympathize with many of Lee’s complaints about the politicization of nonpartisan institutions. But I’m nonetheless concerned to see a government actor — in this case a lawmaker — seeking to exert pressure on the internal decisions of a religious institution.
To me, this contravenes the spirit of religious freedom.
Of course, there’s no better authority on such matters than Lee himself. Last month, the senator spoke vigorously and eloquently about the importance of protecting religious liberty even when it goes against one’s own views, stating “just because someone doesn’t like it, just because somebody might feel like the exercise of those rights runs contrary to what they would like to see or maybe even runs contrary to their interest, it still doesn’t make it OK for government to interfere with that right.”
Sadly, almost all the local media outlets failed to cover Lee’s powerful remarks from last month — but there was at least one notable exception that stands out: KSL.com.
Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family law and policy in Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. His views are his own.