The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling upholding virtually all of the McCain-Feingold law limiting contributions to political campaigns and proscribing television advertisements close to elections is a serious attack on the First Amendment.
The court bought the argument by the law's proponents that money is inherently corrupting and that by limiting the amount of money and the timing of speech, the entire political process will somehow become more virtuous. Like legislation designed to control guns rather than the people who use guns illegally, money cannot corrupt politicians. Politicians corrupt themselves.
Last year at a gathering of journalists in Boston, Nat Hentoff (an authority on the First Amendment) and I heard Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., respond to a question about limits to political ads one to two months before either a primary or general election. Meehan explained the limits were necessary "because that's when people are paying attention." So, when people are most interested in politics is when they should receive less information about the candidates? What kind of twisted reasoning is this?
This "terrible, terrible decision," to quote Hentoff, will further empower television. Under the guise of news reporting, liberal and conservative anchors and hosts can advance their personal political agenda by the guests they select to appear on their shows before an election. No advocacy group - unless it is a registered political action committee (PAC) - will be able to purchase an ad to tell another side of an issue or defend or criticize a political candidate. So, a Dan Rather, Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw can interview liberals who attack President Bush, providing little or no equal time for those who disagree, and a Sean Hannity can invite on his Fox program people who support Bush and ignore Bush opponents. This may empower TV anchors, but it doesn't empower voters.
Few individuals can afford the cost of television time, which is the best medium for reaching the greatest number of people. In the recent past, individuals have chosen to align themselves with groups that represent their political viewpoints. Whether it is the ACLU on the left or National Right to Life on the right, the freedom of individuals through these organizations will be limited.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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