Monday, July 9, 2007

Missoulian editorial strikes the right note on free speech

Quoting with approval Chief Justice John Roberts in his recent opinion, “When the First Amendment is implicated, the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor,” the Missoulian comes down on the side of political free speech in a good editorial.

No one should doubt the good intention of those who attempted to remove influence-peddling from politics via restrictions on campaign contributions and spending.

As Fred Thompson, who supported McCain-Feingold, has unapologetically noted when Republicans have faulted him for that vote, there was something very wrong when the same person who donated 5 or 6 figures last week in soft money appeared in front of your committee the next week to lobby for your support -- with no-one else in the room knowing that he had given it.

But, like Thompson, the Missoulian notes the failure of those efforts. Good intentions, but obviously a wrong approach:

2002 campaign finance rewrite did nothing to curb the flow of special-interest money into elections, or to either temper or elevate the public discourse.

In fact, in 2004, the FEC cleared the way for “independent” political groups to channel virtually unlimited amounts of money into political campaigns via so-called 527 groups.

Referencing Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, these groups are tax-exempt and lie outside laws requiring disclosure of donors or limits on the amount of money any one donor may contribute.

These groups, and their money and influence, were untouched by last week's ruling. They can and will go right on drowning the electoral process with secret money.

The Montana Headlines telephone rang any number of times during the last Senatorial campaign so that someone from the east coast from could ply their tax-exempt anti-Burns message on the household inhabitants.

Democratic 527's were hard at work before the ink was even dry on McCain-Feingold, so no-one was being fooled. One recalls seeing George Soros on C-Span, being questioned about the large amounts of money he was pouring into these organizations so soon after McCain-Feingold had been passed in order to stop that sort of thing. Soros's response was to shrug and say that he was following the law to the letter, which was true.

Fortunately, Republicans caught up just enough with the Swiftboat guys to get a little 527 payback and frustrate Mr. Soros in his attempt to buy the 2004 presidential election.

Many on the Republican side have been advocating, for some time, the idea that the key is full and immediate disclosure -- and forget the dollar restrictions. The Missoulian seems to agree with that sentiment, and Thompson has certainly floated the idea as an alternative.

While this idea, too, will be found to have flaws, it is certainly an improvement on the status quo.

There would be something profoundly wrong with a situation where pornography has a hallowed 1st amendment status while political speech -- the kind of speech that the 1st amendment was most concerned (if not exclusively concerned) with preserving -- is restricted. There is more for the SCOTUS to strike down and for Congress to take steps to rectify -- draconian limits on personal campaign contributions, for starters -- but this decision was a good start.

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