George Will

WASHINGTON -- For several decades, most of the ingenuity that liberal academics have invested in First Amendment analysis has aimed to justify limiting the core activity that the amendment was written to protect -- political speech. These analyses treat free speech as not an inherent good but as a merely instrumental good, something justified by serving other ends -- therefore something to be balanced against, and abridged to advance, other goods.

The good for which Zephyr Teachout would regulate speech is combating corruption, which, as she understands it, encompasses most of contemporary politics. A visiting law professor at Duke, writing in the Cornell Law Review ("The Anti-Corruption Principle"), she makes an astonishingly sweeping argument for emancipating government from First Amendment restrictions on its powers to regulate political speech -- speech about the government's composition and conduct.

Hitherto, most arguments for such emancipation -- for McCain-Feingold and other measures regulating the quantity, content and timing of political speech -- have rested on the supposed need to curb corruption or the "appearance" thereof, with corruption understood as quid pro quo transactions, political favors exchanged for financial favors. But bribery has long been criminalized, and courts are wary about allowing the criminalizing of the constant transactions of mutual support between politicians and factions.

Teachout's capacious definition of corruption includes even an unseemly "attitude" of citizens as well as officeholders "toward public service." She says the Framers thought limiting corruption was their "primary task." Therefore the "anti-corruption principle" should have "as much weight" as the First Amendment, giving Congress considerable "leeway" to regulate the political "process," which is mostly speech. What Teachout disparagingly calls "the apotheosis of speech" and "the sanctified meme of 'free speech'" is, she says, "a serious problem" requiring a rethinking of "the proper relationship of speech to self-serving public actors."

She advocates, as proponents of an elastic Constitution often do, an "evolving standard," this time a standard about how we define, measure and condemn "self-serving" behavior, aka corruption. This standard might license Congress to restrict speech in order to combat:


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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