Earlier this year President Bush risked the lives of American military personnel to end Iraq’s tyrannical regime–a dictatorship that not only restricted the actions of Iraqis but also silenced them from speaking their mind. It is ironic that President Bush led America into that war only days before signing legislation–the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (B.C.R.A)–that would violate and ultimately curtail our freedom of speech.
The U.S. Supreme Court is now reviewing this legislation–and with it the future of free speech in America.
The alleged goal of B.C.R.A. is to end corruption in the political process. The two key provisions of the law, based on legislation drafted by Sen. Russell Feingold and Sen. John McCain, are the pre-election ban on “issue advertisements” sponsored by corporations and unions and the limits on so-called “soft money.” Far from stopping corruption, these provisions are violations of free speech.
Political contributions, large or small, are a mode of speech–more clearly so than many of the forms of “symbolic speech,” such as nude dancing and the filing of lawsuits, that have previously been protected–because they explicitly entail the expression of ideas. Your contribution to a candidate is de facto the publication of your ideas and is similar to hiring a speaker or commissioning an author. The amount of money you contribute–as an individual or in cooperation with others–should not disqualify you from expressing your ideas. The only proper “limits” on contributions are those set by your willingness to employ your money for this purpose.
All forms of advertising, including television advertising, are crucial means for communicating your ideas, values, and arguments. Election time is perhaps the most opportune time to broadcast political ads. Under the B.C.R.A.’s provisions, however, “issue advertising” on television is prohibited 60 days before a general election and 30 days before a primary.
B.C.R.A. strictly limits how much corporations and other organizations can contribute in “soft money” to a political party, but leaves political action committees, such as the environmentalist Green Power and Sen. McCain’s own Straight Talk America, relatively free to speak their mind. With this law, our government is effectively telling us: “Shut up. Sit Down. Listen.” And the only voices we’ll hear are those the government has approved. This law restricts in principle what you can say by restricting how much you can say–and when you can say it. The B.C.R.A. will ultimately create in America an entrenched ideological elite granted permission to speak by the government.
The fundamental purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the right of citizens to express their views. The right to speak cannot be implemented without the right to property. The right to acquire and dispose of your property makes it possible for you to express your ideas, be it by publishing a book, placing an ad on the op-ed page, hiring a hall in which to deliver a lecture, supporting a candidate with whom you agree, or, more important, criticizing one with whom you disagree. The right to use his property is the only protection a private citizen has against a government monopoly on ideas. As Chief Justice Rehnquist correctly noted, “[It’s] not up to the government to decide there is too much speech coming from one place and not enough from another.”
The Supreme Court would do well to strike down the entire B.C.R.A., and pave the way for repealing all such legislation at federal and state levels.
Campaign finance limits cannot end political corruption, because the origin of this problem is the arbitrary power that politicians have to impose undeserved punishments on, or grant unearned rewards to, groups and individuals. The “special interests” contribute to candidates (often on both sides of an election) in order to escape certain controls or to appeal for legislative favors. But the corruption lies in the arbitrary power our politicians have, not in the fact that the victims or beneficiaries of that power try to influence its exercise. Removing that power, therefore, is the only way to eliminate the corruption.
Limiting the amount of money spent on elections will not solve the problem of influence-peddling; it will, however, destroy a principle vital to our republic. It is the right to use and dispose of one’s property that makes freedom of speech possible. Taken to its logical conclusion, the B.C.R.A. would move America’s political system toward that of Iraq’s former dictatorship.