Roy S. Trahan II, the former publisher of the Cheboygan, Mich., Daily Tribune, has been charged with four felonies for allegedly giving preferential campaign ad rates to a candidate for mayor.

He was arraigned last month on four felony counts of violating Michigan campaign-finance law. Prosecutors say he charged mayoral candidate Thomas Verwys $1 for four campaign ads last year while charging his opponent, Bill Chlopan, $5.20 per column inch.

Trahan faces three years in prison and fines up to $20,000 on the charges.

Sens. John McCain, Russ Feingold and Thad Cochran would probably approve of locking up Trahan and throwing away the key. Because, if their hideous version of “campaign finance reform” is approved by Congress, there will be many more people in jail for exercising their First Amendment rights.

If Michigan law-enforcement authorities are right about Trahan, then clearly what he did was “not fair.” Yet, his actions, no matter how you slice them, are clearly protected by the Constitution. As a member of the press, Trahan is not even legally obligated to accept ads from a politician with whom he disagrees — nor should he be.

Americans have become so conditioned to the notion of using the law to achieve “fairness” at all costs that they are losing sight of right and wrong, constitutional vs. unconstitutional.

And that’s what is at stake in the current congressional debate over campaign finance laws. The most serious threats to freedom are embodied in McCain-Feingold-Cochran legislation. It is a direct assault on the First Amendment. It is an incumbent-protection scheme. It is designed to protect politicians from attacks and thus restricts politically protected speech.

McCain-Feingold-Cochran would ban speech that merely refers to a candidate — not just speech expressly advocating his or her election or defeat. It would ban political speech by labor unions and corporations if it takes place 60 or fewer days before an election.

When the Internal Revenue Service audited my non-profit journalism center in 1996, one of its assertions was that we had dared to sponsor articles critical of President Clinton in an election year. Our defense was based on the First Amendment — and we won. But what will happen in a post-McCain world?

McCain-Feingold-Cochran devotes several pages to defining “coordinate activities” — those not independent of a candidate’s campaign and thus subject to federal election law. This convoluted section of the bill would expand federal restrictions on free speech for independent groups. Expenditures deemed coordinated will be treated as direct contributions — just like Michigan is doing to Trahan.

This is not “reform,” folks, it’s fascism — pure and simple. This is tyranny. We might as well allow the government to simply control all speech prior to elections. And, in fact, why stop there? Why limit the controls to 60 days before elections? Such restrictions are certain to lengthen the election season, so maybe we better just let the government take over the press all year round.

That is the road we’re heading down.

Real campaign finance reform is not even on Congress’ radar screen. What it would mean is simple and straightforward: Political expression of all kinds should be encouraged in a free society. Thus, there should be no campaign spending limitations placed on anyone — with the exception of foreigners. The only requirement of campaign finance law should be full disclosure. Period. End of story.

This would mean we’d have more vigorous debates in political seasons. Is anything wrong with that? It would mean we wouldn’t need distinctions between “soft money” and “hard money.” All these corrupt shell games created by federal campaign law would come to an end.

Oh yeah, we’d need to take one more step toward free elections: We’d need to stop all federal funding of campaigns. Again, period. End of story. Why do we have to make things so complicated? Why do we need lawyers to become involved in our electoral system?

The federal government has no constitutional authority to transfer wealth from the general treasury to political campaigns. All government intrusion in politics accomplishes is to restrain our freedom.

The former publisher of the Cheboygan Daily Tribune is learning that lesson now. Should we learn from his experience? Or will we have to learn the hard way — from our own?

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