Public Citizen, a so-called consumer group that routinely speaks of the leaders of private industry as if they were malevolence personified, wants to curtail their speech rights, making it more difficult for them to fight back.

In a way, the stance is understandable, considering how unrestricted talk just might reveal some of the group's positions for what they are: deadly.

The group, founded by Ralph Nader, invariably employs the language of saintly dragon slayer and has done exactly that in making it sound as if Nike will get away with slave labor abroad unless something is done to keep the corporation from defending itself. Debated before the Supreme Court, the solution favored by Public Citizen and others is to treat Nike's amply provoked discourse as though it were advertising, thereby subjecting it to civil penalties if Nike falls into factual error.

The chutzpah here is astonishing. The group's very name - Public Citizen - conveys a robust sense of the give-and-take of democracy. You would suppose such a group would favor discussion on equal legal terms, but no, it wants discussion on its terms; it wants First Amendment protections that it would deny the other guy, and has little use, it turns out, for that great tool of democracy, unfettered utterance by one and all.

Know, too, that Public Citizen is no timid voice in the affairs of this land, but a top-of-the-lungs advocate. And know as well that its own speech could sometimes be judged as missing the mark by astonishing distances. Finally, know that this supposed slayer of dragons can also be seen as more dragonlike than those it pursues. No one's political speech should be curbed, but if curbing was your game, you would want to look closely at a group whose favored policies are sometimes killers, such as the ones on irradiation, fuel-limit standards and free trade.

Contrary to the judgment of the World Health Organization, the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and contrary to years of experience and scientific testing, Public Citizen has supposed bacteria-eradicating irradiation of food as risky. Even today after it is legal, group spokesmen seem omnipresent in making scary remarks about a process whose widespread acceptance could save literally thousands of lives.

Contrary to the stance suggested by studies of scholars at Brookings and Harvard, and the concurrence of other social scientists, Public Citizen has favored increased fuel-limit standards for American automobiles, the virtually assured consequence of which would be additional deaths on American highways. To reduce average fuel consumption of their fleets, auto manufacturers would have to further downsize American cars, and the smaller a car, the riskier. The group's founder, Nader, once said as much. When he was first coming to fame decades ago on the issue of highway mayhem, he pronounced the physics certainty: Larger cars are safer cars.

Contrary to what almost any economist would tell you, Public Citizen sees free trade as a peril. More specifically, it opposes giving presidents the authority to negotiate trade deals that are then free from congressional tinkering, although they must be approved by Congress to go in effect. And it is anxious about the North American Free Trade Agreement. Free trade not only makes the United States more prosperous, but offers the single best avenue of rescue for many undeveloped economies and their hungry, diseased populations. Standing in the way can shorten many lives, doing far more harm abroad than Nike could do if it were twice as exploitative as critics allege it is.

A common thread in all these Public Citizen policies and still others is the apparent conviction that many if not most businesses are managed by morally suspect human beings who must be corralled according to the understandings of their betters, namely people of the kind who belong to Public Citizen. My own thesis is that people who manage businesses are just as moral on the average as the people in Public Citizen and have far more specific knowledge about what they are doing, and that the pro-state, anti-business ideological fervor of Public Citizen-type groups is far more the jeopardy, both to our precious freedoms and our lives.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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