Committed to the First Amendment

Right Idea, Flawed Execution

Depending on whom you ask, the Supreme Court's decision upholding new campaign-finance laws either dealt a severe blow to free speech or struck an equally powerful one for the reform of a corrupt political system. It probably did some of both.

The decision empowers Congress to control the flow of money that it has, in essence, conceded it can't help being corrupted by: political speech sacrificed to political reality.

Money undeniably buys access and influence. Some of that is corrupting, rewarding the rich and powerful. But access and influence are also the undeniable currency of all politics. Some of that money is spent in giving collective political voice to those who choose to band together in a common goal or interest.

As Justice Kennedy points out in his dissent, "There is no basis, in law or in fact, to say favoritism or influence in general is the same as corrupt favoritism or influence in particular. By equating vague and generic claims of favoritism or influence with actual or apparent corruption," the law, he says, "permits Congress to suppress speech."

Part of the reform effort's message, says attorney Robert Corn-Revere, is the oxymoron that "political speech is so important under the First Amendment that it must be regulated."

Substitute "broadcast speech" for "political speech" and you have the general rationale for all those who use the regulation of speech as a tool of social engineering.

One top analyst predicts the decision to limit electioneering broadcast speech won't take the steam out of a campaign engine that is already predicted to spend $1.6 billion on ads in the 2004 election season, some 60% more than in 2000.

We agree with the High Court majority that the government has a compelling interest in curbing political corruption. We don't pretend to know what the cure is, but we still believe that restricting speech is the wrong prescription.

Yes and No

The National Rifle Association wants to buy a broadcast outlet so that it can be assured a media exemption from candidate-centered speech otherwise regulated by the just-upheld campaign-finance-reform laws. Candidate John Kerry's protestations notwithstanding, if the NRA does, in fact, buy a TV or radio station, it should get the exemption. The group should be allowed to say what it pleases—short of shouting "ready, aim, fire" in a crowded theater—on whatever outlet it owns, as other ideologically based media do—religious broadcasters for example.

NRA lawyers are said to be pondering whether owning a single outlet would extend that exemption to purchased time on other media, allowing them to sidestep the new restrictions on electioneering speech entirely. The general consensus is no, but lawyers shouldn't have to be huddling to find ways to give voice to political speech.