In 1990 the Louisiana Legislature passed a bill that lowered the penalty for beating up a flag-burner to a $25 misdemeanor. Some patriotic Cajuns actually wanted to prepay the fine so they could have a de facto "Open a Can of Whup-ass on a Long-haired Pinko Permit."
At the time, civil libertarians were kick-the-cat angry about this allegedly nakedly fascist assault on the First Amendment. Me? I admired it as a wonderful example of the spirit of democratic compromise, the delicate balancing of free-speech rights with community standards.
I bring this up to point out that I am no voluptuary of free speech. I don't think it's "censorship" when the government chooses not to subsidize pictures and sculptures that involve either anatomical parts or substances normally associated with the potty. I don't break my pencil in solidarity with the American Civil Liberties Union every time some patchouli-soaked hemptivist isn't allowed to bullhorn a public meeting to his heart's content.
But sometimes even I can get worked up about free speech.
Indeed, this week's campaign-finance debacle has gotten me on my free-speech soapbox. It's the latest example of the inverted world view of liberal reformers, who care so much about their principles when the stakes are low but who are willing to give away the store when the stakes are high.
Consider that the bill just approved by the Senate - the "world's greatest deliberative body," har har - is not only unconstitutional in my own humble opinion, it is unconstitutional in the opinion of its sponsors. Sens. McCain and Feingold conceded last week that big chunks of their legislation will, in all likelihood, be tossed out like month-old bread by the Supreme Court.
That was why the "reformers" opposed an amendment on something called "non-severability." If non-severability had passed, the whole McCain-Feingold law could have been voided if the courts found any part of it unconstitutional. (Promise to readers: I will not use the term non-severability again for at least one year.)
But McCain wasn't overly concerned with the bill's constitutional Achilles' heel. His arguments were the equivalent of Ford saying, "Sure the engine might not work, but that shouldn't stop us from selling the car."
One need not get misty-eyed over the central role free expression plays in a democracy to recognize that the First Amendment was intended first and foremost to protect political speech.
Yet the founders would have inhaled their snuff boxes whole if they'd been told that in the future, Congress could interpret the First Amendment in such a way that private citizens would be barred from even uttering a politician's name in an advertisement for the two months prior to an election. Not to mention, at the same time, the First Amendment would be construed to guarantee a federal subsidy for crucifixes in urine and other silliness.
This hypocrisy has been the trademark of the press' self-serving coverage of free speech for years. Whenever there is a suggestion that the press' freedom is in danger, the media's cheese slips completely off its cracker; editorial boards wax "deeply concerned" about "chilling effects" and "creeping censorship."
But when somebody else's ox gets gored, or when speech the press doesn't like gets banned, there's nothing but polite applause and cheering.
There was no outcry, for example, when the federal government, in the name of public health, forced tobacco companies to spend billions of their own dollars on speech of the government's choosing. In fact, the media had been clamoring for such an Orwellian move for years.
But when it was revealed that the Clinton White House, in the name of public health, was offering harmless incentives to TV networks to include anti-drug messages in shows like "Touched by an Angel," media pooh-bahs pounded their high chairs. The New York Times fumed that the networks and the government were "crossing a dangerous line they should not cross. On the far side of that line lies the possibility of censorship and state-sponsored propaganda."
Well, now the federal government is well on its way to saying that only newspapers, magazines and news networks have the right to criticize, praise, refute, endorse or even mention politicians during the 60 days prior to an election, i.e. when the public is paying attention. And the elite press, lead by The Times, couldn't be happier.
The fact that Handgun Control Inc. and Greenpeace are barred from running ads in favor of certain politicians, along with the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, shouldn't bother The New York Times that much because, after all, The Times will be left with an even bigger megaphone, now that all of those pesky citizens have been muzzled.
One reason why Greenpeace and other liberal groups aren't concerned that much is because they trust Hollywood, the news networks, and The New York Times and other government-approved media to carry their messages for them.
It makes me want to buy one of those beat-up-a-campaign-finance-reformer permits. I'd even pay a lot more than $25.