Wednesday, August 11, 2004

A FREE-SPEECH OUTRAGE. When it comes to campaign-finance reform, I've already gone over to the dark side. So please don't be shocked by my recommendation of this George Will piece, in the current Newsweek, on the latest ironic twist in the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law.

It seems that an anti-abortion-rights group called Wisconsin Right to Life may not be able to run a television ad after August 15 - that is, within 30 days of the state's US Senate primary - because the organization had the temerity to name one of the candidates in that primary. That would be Senator Russell Feingold, the Democratic incumbent and co-author of the law that bears his name.

Now, Will has been railing against the anti-speech consequences of campaign-finance reform for years; I'm new to the cause (although I've always opposed this particular provision of McCain-Feingold). Will also opposes abortion rights; I'm pro-choice. But the example he cites illustrates perfectly how so-called reform is stifling political speech. Will writes:

The political class hates having independent groups of citizens butting into the country's political conversation. The premise of McCain-Feingold is that elections are the private property of the political class, whose members should be empowered to control the topics of discussion during any election season. During the debate on McCain-Feingold, speaker after speaker complained that "issue-advocacy ads are a nightmare" (Sen. Paul Wellstone) and that McCain-Feingold is "about slowing political advertising" (Sen. Maria Cantwell).

Fortunately, the rickety scaffolding of campaign-finance regulations is collapsing and being replaced by wholesome chaos. Internet fund-raising by candidates, and the gushers of contributions to the 527 advocacy groups (named for the pertinent provision of the tax code), are demonstrating the futility - not to mention the unwisdom - of government attempts to impose a regime of speech rationing.

Here, at least, I think Will's reasoning is faulty. The 527s exist solely to get around McCain-Feingold. If we had a rational system - unregulated (more or less) giving, coupled with instant disclosure on the Internet - then the 527s never would have been born.

Liberal 527s such as and America Coming Together are doing excellent work, but without McCain-Feingold, the millions of dollars they are raising would be going directly to political candidates. As they should.

It's an outrage to the First Amendment that an independent organization can't say anything it likes about a political candidate at any time it wishes. Free speech is free speech, and political speech should enjoy the highest protection of all.

Instead, we have certified good guys such as Senator John McCain and Representatives Marty Meehan and Christopher Shays filing an amicus brief in federal court to keep Wisconsin Right to Life off the air.

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