George Will

Now, that is a novel argument: Equal "access" to the educational benefits of student politics would be diminished if more political advocacy were permitted. Unpersuaded, Flint appealed, but his appeal took him to the epicenter of novel argumentation, the reliably liberal and frequently reversed 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

It ruled against Flint, arguing that the university's limits on political speech are reasonably related to two permissible institutional objectives -- providing "student candidates a valuable educational experience" and maintaining the election process "as an educational tool, rather than an ordinary political exercise." Two things were unexplained: What is the nifty educational value of an election process that is not an ordinary political process? And: How does severely limiting political speech serve "a valuable educational experience"?

Anyway, last summer the U.S. Supreme Court, while upholding the right of a high school to restrict speech advocating the use of illegal drugs, stressed that students' rights are greatest with respect to political speech and ideological speech. And Justice Sam Alito, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, stressed that the ruling "provides no support for any restriction of speech that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue."

Courts have spun a complex tangle of law distinguishing different degrees of permissible regulation of speech depending on which kind of "forum" it occurs in -- a "limited public forum," a "designated public forum," even a "metaphysical" forum (it is not physical). In this case, the forum is neither mysterious nor small nor the university's property: The $100 limit covered an individual's political advocacy not just on campus but on public sidewalks and streets throughout Missoula, where many students live.

If the Supreme Court takes Flint's appeal, it will see that the University of Montana is indeed teaching students a lesson about politics -- the pernicious lesson that politics should be conducted under tight restrictions on advocacy. The university is preventing students from learning such essential civic skills as how to raise and allocate political money for advertising and organizing. Thus do the grossly anti-constitutional premises of McCain-Feingold seep through society, poisoning the practice of democracy at all levels.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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