Friday, January 29, 2010

First Amendment means nothing?

I'm fascinated at how little the First Amendment means to so many people in the United States (check some of the comments on this Orange Punch blog post). Obama specifically criticized the Supremes for their Citizens United decision with a wildly inaccurate characterization of it and Sam Alito gets criticized for being seen to silently mouth the words "not true." All right, it was a minor breach of protocol. Obama's characterization was a major breach of SOTU precedent -- no president has used it to make such a direct criticism -- and a major breach of the truth. In the fuss, we forget about the First Amendment.

The McCain-Feingold law included a novel restriction on advocacy organizations, a rule that they couldn't air any ads or other kinds of modes of persuasion in a way that the FEC could interpret as electioneering just before -- 60 days before -- an election, when election-related speech should be at its most robust and political speech most carefully protected. The campaign restrictionist crowd didn't like it, and the Supremes could have issued a narrower decision, but the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law," remember?) was clearly violated. It was correct to strike the clearly unconstitutional law down. That's the Supreme Court's job, arguably its only important job. But the restrictionists reverse the logic of democracy. Elections are supposed to be how the people control the government, but if the government controls the electoral process, declaring who can participate and how, the permanent government cannot be really held accountable. That's what campaign finance "reform" is really all about, giving government more control over the process that is supposed to control it.

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