When the founding fathers created the First Amendment, their main concern was political speech. They wanted a nation in which a people were free to engage in a free-wheeling debate about politics and politicians.
The amendment was clear-cut: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
That’s straightforward. For the most part, Americans still enjoy vast free-speech rights. Any legislator who would propose a direct assault on free speech in the name of silencing dissent would be laughed out of politics.
That being said, nonetheless, certain laws are having a direct impact on such speech, even though they are restricting in indirect ways. Often, the greatest threats to free speech come in the name of campaign-finance restrictions, which subject political speech to an array of rules.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard a legal challenge last week to the notorious McCain-Feingold campaign reforms, named after U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis. Passed in 2002, the law is best known for its restrictions on “soft money” — independent donations that go to political advocacy groups that are not tied to a candidate’s campaign organization.
“Under the 2002 law, any radio or TV spot that names a federal candidate and is broadcast within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election is subject to the sort of regulations — disclosure rules and funding limits — that apply to campaign ads,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The case before the court deals with TV ads run by Wisconsin Right to Life at the time that Sen. Feingold was running for re-election. As the newspaper explained, the ads called on viewers to call Sen. Feingold and Sen. Herbert Kohl to support President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. A federal court found the ads to be the equivalent of campaign ads that fall under the McCain-Feingold restrictions.
Here we see the result of campaign restrictions. In the name of reducing the influence of money in elections, we have courts and regulators outlawing advocacy groups from trying to influence the political process. The result if upheld is that more groups will have to keep quiet, more Americans will opt out of the debate and many arguments will never reach the public discourse.
In reality, it costs money to influence debate, and advocacy and political groups need to raise and spend money to pay for TV, radio and newspaper ads if they want to get their message heard. McCain- Feingold seeks to stop the ads, stop the discussion, keep more Americans in the dark. That’s why groups on the left and right have supported the Wisconsin Right to Life position on this case.
Let’s hope the Supreme Court, which has upheld the constitutionality of McCain-Feingold, comes to understand the grave threat to free speech that this law has created.