Jacob Sullum

For those who wondered how Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., could sponsor a "campaign finance reform" law that restricts political speech, the answer became clear during a hearing he chaired the other day: McCain has never read the First Amendment.

How else to explain the senator's contention that radio stations violate the First Amendment when they decline to play the music of performers who offend their listeners? According to McCain, this threat to freedom of speech is a "strong argument" for limiting "media concentration" -- in this case, for compelling big radio chains to sell some of their stations.

As you may have guessed, the focus of this Senate Commerce Committee hearing was the Dixie Chicks, the country music performers from Texas who caught flak last spring for remarks about President Bush and the war in Iraq. At a concert in London, lead singer Natalie Maines told the audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." She later apologized for being disrespectful but reiterated her doubts about the war.

The apology didn't help. As Lewis Dickey, CEO of the 270-station Cumulus Broadcasting group, recalled during the hearing, "There was a groundswell of negative reaction by our listeners against the band. We had never seen anything like it before. Calls were coming in . . . from our individual program directors across the country, saying there was a hue and cry from our listeners regarding those remarks that was unprecedented."

Cumulus responded by barring Dixie Chicks songs from its 50 or so country music stations for a month. "At the same time," Dickey noted, "our Top 40 radio stations in the same markets . . . continued to play the Dixie Chicks," because "we didn't have the hue and cry from our listeners."

Dickey concluded that continuing to play the Dixie Chicks on the chain's country stations would alienate listeners and ultimately cost Cumulus money. I'm not sure the 30-day ban was a smart business move, but there's no question the decision was the company's to make.

No question, that is, except in the minds of John McCain and people who share his confusion. McCain called the Dixie Chicks moratorium "an incredible, incredible act," explaining: "I was . . . as offended as anyone by the statement of the Dixie Chicks. But to restrain their trade because they exercised their right of free speech to me is remarkable."

Not just incredible and remarkable, McCain told Dickey, but unconstitutional: "Because if someone else in another format offends you, and there's a huge hue and cry, and you decide to censor those people, my friend, the erosion of the First Amendment in the United States of America is in progress."


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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