Archive for the ‘First Amendment’ Tag

Freedom of speech and campaign finance laws

In response to my Constitution Day blog post, a friend of mine sent me the text of a speech, “The Liberal Assault on Freedom of Speech,” given by a professor of politics at the University of Dallas, Thomas West. He comments on the impact of recent campaign finance legislation on the freedom of political speech in the United States, which is, after all, the most important sort of speech since it allows you to defend or regain the other sorts of speech.

Professor West is critical of laws like McCain-Feingold, which limits the ability of citizens groups to criticize–or support–political candidates and issues within certain time periods, viz. right before an election when such speech could have the most impact. He quotes several incumbent legislators who claim the laws are designed to limit negative ads and clean up politics. Of course, as people already in office and enjoying the numerous benefits of incumbency, I can see how their own interests might bias them in these matters. West also critiques regulation of the airwaves, such as the fairness doctrine which stifled discussion of politics on the radio and involved the government in what could be discussed until it was rescinded in 1987.

The speech reminded me of a 1997 article, “A Constitutional Campaign Finance Plan,” by Michael W. McConnell, who was at the time a Constitutional lawyer and is now a federal appellate judge sitting on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. He criticizes the current regime, writing that “McCain-Feingold … make[s] it a crime to run an advertisement stating your views on [a] candidate within 60 days of the election. Under no coherent reading of the Constitution could it be permissible to prohibit citizens and voluntary associations from attempting to persuade their fellow citizens how to vote. That is the very core of the First Amendment.”

He argues that spending money to persuade public opinion is very good but that spending money to buy access to politicians is bad; campaign finance laws should try to eliminate or limit the later without too seriously impinging on the former. He makes a number of very interesting suggestions towards these ends, such as eliminating PACs and raising individual contribution limits. 

Individuals have many different opinions and interests, and unless their contributions are large enough to warrant invitation to a White House coffee or its equivalent, the candidate does not necessarily know what those interests are. The interests of a PAC lobbyist, by contrast, are all too clear. It also bears mention that PACs give almost 13 times as much money to incumbents as to challengers–a sure sign that the purpose of the contribution is to buy influence rather than to persuade voters.

He also proposes banning campaign contributions for a certain period, such as six months, following election day.

The postelection fundraiser, where lobbyists scurry to placate the winner, may be the most undisguised form of influence peddling in our entire system. It is particularly disgusting to see lobbyists who supported the loser suddenly switch sides. This abuse can be banned without injury to freedom of speech. Postelection contributions cannot possibly serve the function of persuading our fellow citizens how to vote. It is simply a way for the holder of public office to use his position for personal political advantage–and for lobbyists to curry favor without any danger that the other side might win.

An extension of this idea would be to require all political campaign contributions to be used by the recipient within a specified period (no longer than six months). This would prevent incumbents from amassing “war chests” to scare off potential challengers. It is hard to believe that contributions made years before the election, and before the contributor even knows who the opposing candidate might be, is a good-faith attempt to persuade. It is almost certainly an attempt to buy influence.

I think that most people are concerned about the influence of money on politics and we don’t want elections to be bought and sold.  However, we shouldn’t pass finance laws that amount to incumbent protection acts in the pursuit of reform.  There are much better ways to eliminate the bad effects of money in politics without removing our rights to support the causes and candidates that share and represent our views.

Unfortunately, since he’d be willing to strike down McCain-Feingold, McConnell is unlikely to be elevated to the Supreme Court if McCain wins, and Obama would also be unlikely to promote him, though Judge McConnell is a stud on the first amendment and has a libertarian bent that I rather like; he’s one of my two favorite federal appellate court judges.  You can read several more of his essays here; he opines on Bush v. Gore and Roe v. Wade, both of which he criticizes.

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Monday Miscellany: Fundraising, Palin, and the Pope

My previous miscellany entry proved to be popular, so I’ve decided to make it a regular staple of my blog. I’ll note interesting news items and articles throughout the week and then bring them to your attention with some comments of my own, usually on Monday, since I can get some alliteration going there. Though “Sunday Sundries” would also sound cool. So, check out the links for more interest on the items that interest you and please comment.

If he'd be as good a president as he is a fundraiser we should all vote for this guy!

If he'd be as good a president as he is a fundraiser, we should all vote for this guy!

While John McCain may have a slight, within-the-margin-of-error lead in the polls, Barack Obama raised $66 million during August, his biggest one-month haul yet. His campaign reports $77 million on hand and is not subject to limits on how much they can raise and spend since he refused federal funding, becoming the first presidential candidate to ever do so. McCain, on the other hand, is now committed to spend no more than the $84 million he has received from the federal government.

Over 2.5 million people have financially contributed to Obama’s campaign. OpenSecrets.org reports that through 31 July, Obama’s campaigned had raised $390 million, 96% of which is from individual contributions. With his haul from August, he’s raised $467,000,000. That’s more than the nominal gross domestic product of Vanuatu, Comoros, or East Timor.

The New York Giants and the New York Jets have broken off negotiations with Allianz, a German insurance company, for the naming rights to their new stadium due to the company’s significant ties to the Nazis and the Holocaust. According to Wikipedia:

Allianz insured both the facilities and personnel at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the Dachau concentration camp. Allianz also provided accident insurance for engineers at the I.G. Farben chemical company, manufacturer of the Zyklon B gas used to exterminate 1.2 million Jews and others at the Auschwitz and Majdanek extermination camps during the Holocaust. Allianz also provided insurance to the Nazis for valuables seized from Jews prior to their forced relocation to the camps.

Additionally, several company executives served in the German government and were responsible for policies which terminated or denied payment of life insurance policies issued to Jews. The payments instead went directly to the Nazis. The issue is more sensitive in the New York City area than it perhaps would be elsewhere due to the regions many Jewish people in general and Holocaust survivors in particular.

More is coming out about Sarah Palin’s tenure as chief executive of Wasilla and Alaska. The New York Times reports that, as governor, she hired five former high school friends for high ranking jobs in the state government and that “the Wasilla High School yearbook archive now doubles as a veritable directory of state government.” They imply that Franci Havemeister, a former real estate agent who now makes $95,000, may not be qualified to run the State Division of Agriculture, her childhood love of cows notwithstanding. Some of Palin’s firing decisions may also have been politically motivated; in 1997, she fired Wasilla’s longtime city attorney, Richard Deuser, after he issued the stop-work order on a home being built by Don Showers, one of her campaign supporters. The article also provides examples of what they call extreme secrecy, like the wide use of personal e-mail accounts, not subject to subpoena and freedom of information laws, to conduct state business. Over 60 legislators and other Alaska and local officials were interviewed for the story, quite a few of which defend and support Palin. I highly recommend the article.

Pope Benedict XVI is visiting France where he held mass with an estimated 220,000 in attendance. France is, of course, a heavily Catholic nation–on paper, at least. Recent polls indicate about 51% of French people self identify as Roman Catholic, down from about 80% in the early 1990s. According to various, somewhat contradictory polls cited by Wikipedia:

  • half of French Catholics don’t believe in God
  • 17% of French Catholics don’t believe in God; and among those who do, most (79%) described Him as a “force, energy, or spirit” and only 18% as a personal god
  • 32% of French people are agnostic; 32% are atheists; and 27% believe in God
  • 34% of French citizens ” believe there is a God”; 27% “believe there is some sort of spirit or life force”; and 33% “do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force”
In Italy, it is illegal to insult this man. Why?  He occupies Saint Peter's chair, he can take it!

In Italy, it is illegal to insult this man. Why? He occupies Saint Peter's chair--he can take it!

Benedict has made challenging Europe’s increasing secularization a major part of his pontificate and France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, also wants the public sphere in France to be more open to people expressing religious belief. Sarkozy, due to a pair of divorces, is ineligible to receive communion.

In other Benedict-related news, Sabina Guzzanti, a popular Italian actress and comic, is facing possible jail time for insulting the Pope. Yes, according to Article 313 of the Italian Penal Code, it is illegal to “insult the honor” of the Pope and the Italian president. The offending remark, delivered at a political rally, was that the Pope would “go to hell and be pursued by two big, gay and very active devils” as a result of his views on homosexuality. Probably not helpful for advancing the public discourse on the subject, but hardly something a person should go to jail for. Thank God for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.