I expressed something resembling shock or chagrin last week that the
U.S. Senate could so casually ignore the First Amendment and proceed as if placing limits on free speech (in the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act) was not only not especially controversial, but the natural and expected response to the fact that some people say and write things the authorities wish they wouldn’t. In view of the continuing effort by a few politicians, much of the inside-the-Beltway goo-goo lobbying crowd and most journalists to keep the tired issue of campaign finance “reform” alive in part by limiting freedom of expression, however, perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked at all.
The natural tendency and desire of the government class (which in this context includes almost everybody who lives and breathes politics whether they draw a paycheck from the taxpayers or not) is to want to limit the freedom, and especially the freedom to express inconvenient political opinions, of the serf class (otherwise known as citizens, the folks for whom the government is supposed to work in the civics-book model).
The move to squelch free speech on drug issues is still alive and dangerous, by the way, even if the Meth bill is unexpectedly stripped of its
obviously unconstitutional curbs on free speech. A conference committee is now working on H.R. 833, the Bankruptcy Reform Act (!) to which the Senate added the same obnoxious provisions contained in the Meth bill making it illegal to teach or demonstrate the manufacture of a controlled substance or to distribute by any means information pertaining to the manufacture of a controlled substance.
Unless the conference members — Hyde, Gekas, McCollum, Graham, Chabot from the House and Hatch, Grassley, Sessions, Torricelli and Leahy from the Senate, hardly a promising lot — hear from constituents the provisions are likely to stay in the bill when it is reported in a week or two. The courts will undoubtedly invalidate the provisions eventually, though perhaps not completely, but in the meantime the feds would be able to shut down websites first and entertain questions later, creating enormous expense and inconvenience for those seeking to exercise their fundamental rights as Americans.
Congress also dealt glancingly with campaign finance issues last week, with the Senate barely passing and the House barely defeating a proposal to require tax-exempt groups that spend money on political-related issues around election time to disclose the names of all their donors who give more than $1,000. This would cover not only donors who contribute to communications efforts dubbed political by government regulators, but all donors. Groups like the NAACP, with long memories of donors being harassed for supporting civil rights, opposed the measure, but most of the “respectable” political class was cheerleading all the way.
Richard L. Berke, in a New York Times story called a news story, was particularly free with the loaded phrases, writing of “the proliferation of tax-exempt groups that are secretly amassing and spending huge sums on political activities,” and “At the very least, reformers deserve some credit for taking on the secret sources of financing.” Then there was his explanation for why a few senators who don’t usually back goo-goo speech-limiting reform backed this one: “Who could condone secretive, even sinister-sounding, organizations?”
Berke named no names and cited no numbers to illustrate the contention that sinister groups are “secretly amassing and spending huge sums.” Perhaps they are so hidden and secretive that the vast resources available to the New York Times are insufficient to root out and identify these evil subverters of the democratic process that was supposed to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the establishment. But in fact there are few secrets.
Pro-life and pro-second-amendment groups that don’t formally endorse candidates, along with a few feminist and civil rights groups, sometimes step up their spending and advertising during election campaigns, when they figure people might be more receptive to considering their issues. And candidate supporters do sometimes put money independently into nebulous groups with gauzy names (think Republicans for the Environment or whatever name some Texas businessmen gave to the front group that ran ads for Dubya during the New York primary). But any journalist worth his shoe leather can smoke out most of these groups.
Berke also quoted Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle to the effect that this proposal was something of a comedown from “those days when we really thought we could see real, comprehensive reform,” confirming that what the “reformers” still lust for is the day when the government has virtually complete control over political speech in America.
The preferred campaign finance “reform,” compared to which all other proposals are viewed as unfortunate compromises forced on timid politicians by sinister special interests, embodies something like what reformed sinner and born-again reformer Al Gore proposed earlier this year. Strict limits on contribution limits and campaign spending. An “endowment” to pay for congressional campaigns with money squeezed from the taxpayers instead of voluntary contributors. Even more limits on “independent” expenditures. Even more rules and regulation from federal bureaucrats on what political candidates can do or say. Then maybe the unruly process can be brought to heel.
As every court that has considered similar issues has ruled, and as the proponents almost certainly understand, almost all these limitations and regulations would constitute unconstitutional infringements on free speech. And it would be not just limits on speech some view as on the fringes of what is protected (think nude dancing), but precisely and directly on the kind of political speech that is at the core of what the First Amendment was written to protect.
But they don’t care, and I suspect I know why. The idea behind popular government (whether a democracy or a republic) is that the political process, mainly but not solely the electoral process, is the way government gets its marching orders. The people, by electing representatives, lobbying, marching, demonstrating, writing letters and in a thousand other ways, try to tell the government what they want done. The process may be indirect and diffused, but the idea is that the people are the bosses, the government apparatus the servants. If you believe any version of this theory, there’s just no excuse for placing limitations (beyond those that involve actual harm or fraud, which can be handled through fairly simple, already existing laws) on this necessarily unruly and often messy process.
If you want to place tight limitations on the political process, to be enforced by bureaucrats who cannot be removed from office because they weren’t put there by the electoral process in the first place, then you obviously don’t believe in popular government. Instead, you believe in some kind of façade of free elections, but one that is tightly controlled by those who already hold power. You believe in removing the connection between office holders and legitimate economic interests among the citizenry, instead making office holders beholden to and controlled by the permanent government.
It’s worth noting also that limitations on campaign spending and issue advertising benefit the established “free” media by enhancing their control over the dispersal and packaging of information. A favorable story or shameless puff piece by a newspaper or TV network doesn’t have to be reported as a campaign contribution, even though it may be more valuable to a candidate than millions of dollars worth of paid advertising. If paid advertising can be shut out, the power of the “mainstream” media over the political process is increased. No wonder so many of them shamelessly whore for this blatant limitation on the free speech of others.
It is no accident that campaign finance “reform” is favored by groups whose ideological agenda typically involves bigger government and more programs. Not only is regulation of the political process part and parcel of such a program, increasing government power over yet another sector of society. Such regulation would unquestionably be used to shut out dissenters to the Gospel of Statism.
So should I be shocked that noble U.S. senators want to squelch speech about substances they have, in their vast wisdom, declared to be illegal? When so many of them lust to control the very speech the First Amendment was most specifically and most directly designed to protect — political speech — perhaps I shouldn’t be.
If not shocked, however, I’m still outraged.