A Little Less Free

It has been said that here are really only two choices with respect to campaign finance reform. Either such “reforms” will be ineffective as people and associations find alternative routes to convey their message and ideas, or they will violate First Amendment protections. Campaign finance reform cannot be successful in its own terms unless there are some messages that people and groups cannot convey under a reform regime that they can now.

In upholding key provisions of the Bi-partisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) in McConnell v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC), the US Supreme Court has managed to whittle away at the First Amendment. This is especially true with respect to the provision that prevents third parties from running ads critical of candidates within 60 days of an election.

The Constitution is very unequivocal. The First Amendment explicitly states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech …or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It does not say that these rights can be abridged, limited, or constrained if convenient of if some other government purpose is at stake. Usually limitations, if they are upheld at all, must pass severe tests.

There are some forms of expression which fall outside of protected speech. For example, it is constitutional to prevent the announcement of secret troop movements if such an announcement presents a “clear and present danger.” This is a very high standard and does not prohibit even publication of all classified material. The US Supreme Court upheld the publication of Pentagon Papers because the standard is not met.

Other times, governments are allowed to limit the “time and manner” of speech in the name of other government priorities. For example, the National Park Service may grant licenses for protests on public property as a way to address concerns of public safety. However, any such restrictions must be generally applied and must be content neutral. However, the BCRA targets particular speech. It bands the purchase of broadcast “electioneering” ads within 60 days of an election. Such speech is defined as any speech that “refers to a clearly identified candidate for federal office.” There are no restrictions on other types of speech. The content neutrality test is not met.

Moreover, in weighing whether time and manner provisions curtail First Amendments rights, courts must apply “strict scrutiny.” Any time and manner restrictions must serve a compelling interest and must impose the minimum restrictions possible. The Court realized that the under such standard, BCRA would not survive. Instead, in McConnell v. FEC, the majority said it could bypass the necessity of strict scrutiny on First Amendment restrictions to allow Congress “to protect the integrity of the political process.”

This could represent the first step in greater erosion of First Amendment protection. The goal of protecting the “integrity of the political process” is sufficient loose to allow all manner of mischief. Might a future Congress decide to restrict ads that mention a candidate 90 or 120 days before an election instead of just 60 to protect the “integrity of the political process?” Might a future Congress ration the number of press ads, fliers, or e-mails that could advocate the election or rejection of a candidate to protect the “integrity of the political process?” How could this standard be limited to broadcast ads? What if in the future most people receive most of their information from the Internet? Indeed, the BCRA limits communication that is sent via “broadcast, satellite, or cable” and it is not hard to stretch this to cover the Internet. Under the vague standard of protecting the “integrity of the political process” there is no principled way to limit Congress from constraining political spending and hence speech on anything from the Internet to bill boards.

The saddest point is that, if anything, protections on political speech should enjoy the highest level of protection. Despite any positive social consequences that might accrue from limiting simulated child pornography or sexually explicit programming on cable broadcast, the US Supreme Court has accorded these forms of expression First Amendment protection. The vital public good of unrestrained speech is so valuable even these vulgar and relatively unimportant expressions are not balanced against any positive social good that might accrue from even modest limitation of these forms of expression. How much more important must be political speech; speech the First Amendment was designed to protect? Apparently, such speech is not very important to this Court.

The majority in this case tries to avoid bumping against the walls of First Amendment protections by arguing that no speech is being limited, only spending on the means to procure such speech. However, the means to speech must be defended if speech is to be protected. Except by getting up on a soap box (assuming the soap box is free) and orating or handwriting a pamphlet (on free paper) any speech requires the interaction of people and that interaction is often mediated by money. As Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent explained: “An author may write a novel, but he will seldom publish and distribute it himself. A freelance reporter may write a story, but he will rarely edit, print, and deliver it to subscribers. To a government bent on suppressing speech, this mod of organization presents opportunities: Control any cog in the machine, and you can halt the whole apparatus. License printers and it matters little whether authors are still free to write. Restrict the sale of books, and it matters little who prints them.”

The Founding Fathers would have been familiar with such circuitous methods to limit expression. That is why the First Amendment was so categorical: to prevent the very sort of usurpation of freedom endorsed by the Court in this decision. The Stamp Act of 1712 in Great Britain applied a tax on newspapers resulting in increased prices and decreased circulation. This was done with the express purpose of punishing and limiting negative coverage. Under the jurisprudence of the present Court, freedom of speech or of the press was not being regulated because the economics of speech were constrained, but not necessarily the content. When Great Britain applied similar legislation to the Colonies in Stamp Act of 1765, it probably hastened the American Revolution.

The BCRA may have been passed under the auspices of attempting to curb corruption, but its true intent is to curb speech, particularly speech directed against incumbents. In explaining the need for the BCRA Senator Barbra Boxer of California complained that “so-called issues ads are not regulated at all and mention candidates. They directly attack candidates without any accountability. It is brutal … We have an opportunity in the … [BCRA] to stop that…” It is a measure of how drug of campaign finance reform has so numbed the mind of a Senator that she can even utter the words “regulate” and “issue ads” in the same sentence. Clearly speech, i.e., critical political speech is what they are trying to regulate.

If Congress were really concerned about the effects of corruption, they would have not have constrained non-profit corporations like the National Rifle Association or the American Civil Liberties Union. Non-profit organizations are not usually looking for graft but to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” If Congress were concerned about corruption, why are third parties unassociated with political parties or candidates so regulated 60 days before an election.

Indeed, the proposition that money induces corruption itself is not borne by the facts. Usually money follows candidates with certain positions rather and driving candidates to other positions. A recent study by Ansolabehere et al. of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives demonstrates that “campaign contributions as a percent of GDP [Gross National Product] have not risen appreciably in over 100 years — if anything, they have probably fallen” and “that when one controls for unobserved constituent and legislator effects, there is little relationship between money and legislator votes.” They found that “Legislators’ votes depend almost entirely on their own beliefs and the preferences of their voters and their party. Contributions explain a miniscule fraction of the variation in voting behavior in the US Congress.”

The final principle of campaign finance reform that appears always to be true is that laws will be so written as to increase the power and security of those writing the bills: incumbents. Incumbents enjoy natural advantages. They usually have high name recognition and their duties require them to be constantly in the public eye. It is a conventional wisdom for those practiced in the martial arts of electioneering that challengers often have to spend substantial sums just to achieve the same name recognition as incumbents. The more speech is limited, even if it is limited even-handedly, the more incumbents are protected from accountability. In the short run, this will benefit Republicans at the national level, but only at the cost of liberty. One day Democrats may enjoy a majority of incumbents and Republicans will suffer a similar fate. It seems that Democrats were the most fool hardly. They sacrificed political liberties without even the advantage of temporary electoral benefit.

BCRA also increases the power of the major media, because they will now alone be the filter of campaign messages, particular in the last 60 days of a campaign when independent ads by third parties endorsing or criticizing candidates cannot be purchased. It is ironic that the press that enjoys the freedom accorded by the First Amendment were among the most vocal proponents of limiting the speech of others.

The media fail to appreciate that there is no principled distinction between limiting third party from “electioneering communication” and limiting similar expressions from the press. In name of protecting the “integrity of the political process,” why could not Congress limit editorials by the press 60 days before an election? If not, could not wealthy corporations and individuals purchase media corporations and use them for electioneering. Indeed, in the early days of the republic, newspapers where generally organs of political parities.

Congress was irresponsible in passing BCRA, but sometimes Congressmen are like lemmings following the popular lead of the press. After all, at best they are only vote in 535 and can separate themselves emotionally from responsibility for their actions. Five of the nine justices on the Supreme Court should now be embarrassed by their complicity in limiting speech. We can only hope this aberration will be undone in some future decision when the Court is compelled to revisit the issue as Congress becomes more emboldened to fend away criticism via legislation. The severest criticism should be leveled at President George W. Bush who probably in his heart of hearts believed the BCRA was unconstitutional. He shirked his responsibility to “preserve and protect” the Constitution. He hoped that the courts would be shield him from the responsibility of taking the unpopular action of vetoing the legislation. He knew better, but did not act.

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