Sex Talk, Si; Political Talk, No!

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Back in a different era – one that seems touchingly innocent now – people used to argue, sometimes almost sincerely, about whether the First Amendment was really written to protect. such things as pornography and nude dancing. Those with a hankering to control the impure or shocking argued that the Founders clearly intended for “freedom of speech” to apply only to speech about political matters, which is essential to a politically free society and deserves protection. Dirty words or pictures of boobs hardly rise to the level of public discourse we might deem essential to keeping the public dialogue open and uncensored.

That was then, this is now. By passing the Shays-Meehan bill, the House of Representatives has explicitly tried to ban certain kinds of explicitly political speech. To say this does not require that we equate political contributions with political speech – though they are, and U.S. courts have consistently held that they are. Shays-Meehan goes far beyond limiting contributions by banning certain corporations, unions, and issue groups from sponsoring or broadcasting certain kinds of “issue ads” within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary. That is an explicit prohibition on relevant political speech at precisely the time when you might suppose anybody genuinely interested in democracy

A more thorough subversion of the intent of the First Amendment can hardly be imagined.


or self-rule would be encouraging as much political speech as possible. It converts political speech into a crime.

A more thorough subversion of the intent of the First Amendment can hardly be imagined. Indeed, when Rep. Gephardt proposed a similar ban a couple of years ago, he was honest enough to admit that it might require some tinkering with the First Amendment, but it was worth it to move toward the Holy Grail of clean elections unscathed by dirty money.

Most of the media celebrated the passage of Shays- Meehan, running glowing profiles of the sponsors and supporters, lauding the persistence and tenacity of the determined reformers. One dirty little secret is that restrictions on campaign contributions and political advertisements increase the’relative power of the media to set the political agenda, because the media (so far). can’t be regulated. Whether a frontal assault on the one purpose of the First Amendment everybody agrees is central to it will end up nullifying the amendment and the media’s freedom is a good question. It might not, so long as the media remain, as they almost all do, the lapdogs of the establishment.

The other dirty little secret is that campaign finance reform is really about entrenching and solidifying the power of the state – the establishment, the insiders, old boys, powers that be, whatever term you prefer – and protecting it from anything so messy or upsetting as a genuine expression of democracy or a genuine manifestation of the people’s will.

The old theory of democracy was that the government served the people and embodied their will as expressed through political action. Now that government openly regulates politics, that theory is exposed as the sham it always was. The only gain is a modest gain in candor – at least the old boys no longer feel the obligation even to pretend that they care a whit for the opinions of the people.

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