BACKDOOR CENSORSHIP. Freedom of speech is a great thing. Too bad we're using the tax code and arcane campaign-finance laws to regulate it to death. I can think of several examples of liberals and progressives being silenced or threatened. The most outrageous: a suggestion that advertisements for Fahrenheit 9/11 could be banned because they amount to illegal campaign contributions to John Kerry.
This morning, though, two examples of conservatives being targeted for speaking their minds.
The first involves Governor Mitt Romney, who delivered a speech on presidential politics earlier this week. Romney certainly deserves criticism on substantive grounds, and Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh sticks it to him today. More troubling, though, is this Globe story, by Raphael Lewis, reporting that Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman Phil Johnston is filing an ethics complaint against Romney for politicking while on the taxpayer's time. Says Johnston:
The entire trip was political. He [Romney] went to Washington to bash John Kerry to the National Press Corps as a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign. Now we find out he stopped off in New Jersey for their Republican Party. Why should the taxpayers pay one dime for the cost of this trip?
The second example is a story in today's New York Times by David Kirkpatrick, who reports that Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has filed a complaint with the IRS charging that the Reverend Jerry Falwell's advocacy of George W. Bush's campaign violates the tax-exempt status of Falwell's religious organization. The Reverend Barry Lynn, head of Americans United, tells the Times:
I certainly hope that this sends a clear message that religious organizations have got to operate within federal tax laws restricting partisan politicking. And I think the message is that the campaign has been reckless in its approach to churches, recklessly trying to lure them into political activities.
Johnston and Lynn may well be right, and Romney and Falwell may indeed be violating some law or regulation. And you could certainly argue that it wouldn't be difficult for them to get on the correct side of the law. Romney could have used campaign funds to pay for his trip. Falwell could haved used his separate lobbying organization to get out his pro-Bush message - as indeed he claims he did.
But political speech ought to be the most unregulated, freewheeling speech there is. Mitt Romney and Jerry Falwell - and Michael Moore and anyone else - ought to feel free to speak out on public issues without worrying that they've broken some provision of the tax code, or violated campaign-finance laws.
In our understandable but misguided zeal to get special-interest money out of politics, we're enroaching on free-speech rights.
A few months ago I wrote about what's wrong with campaign-finance reform. Click here to read it.