Court battle over campaign finance opens

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Two days of court argument on the new campaign-finance-reform law opened
Wednesday in Federal District Court in Washington, D.C.

Opponents of the new law, which include the National Association of
Broadcasters, argued that new rules banning the use of 'soft' money for federal
candidates and restricting the types of ads broadcast on TV and radio close to
an election violate free-speech rights.

Despite the proceeding's high profile, the court's decision will carry little
weight. The law's fate ultimately will rest with the Supreme Court this
summer.

Former Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr opened argument for the opponents,
which also included the Democratic and Republican parties, interest groups of
all political stripes and civil-rights advocates.

The ban on soft money would spill
over to state and local elections, Starr said -- an area that Congress has
virtually no authority to regulate.

'This is, upon reflection, staggering,' he added.

Floyd Abrams, perhaps America's most famous First
Amendment attorney, decried restrictions on ads sponsored by interest groups close to
an election.

'The big question is whether the First Amendment allows this speech to be
criminalized,' he said.

In defense of the law, Department
of Justice lawyer James Gilligan said the opponents were overdramatizing
risks to free speech.

'It does not criminalize or prohibit speech,' he said, noting that interest
groups that wish to air ads supporting or opposing candidates may form
political-action committees and raise funds specifically for electioneering.

The new law is necessary, Gilligan added, because of 'untrammeled evasions of
campaign-finance laws for the better part of a quarter century.'

Argument continues Thursday over broadcasters'
campaign-ad record-keeping requirements.

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