Jonah Goldberg

The biggest source of confusion stems from the left's success in turning personal and "lifestyle" rebellion into political rebellion. We now have in this country a widespread conviction, upheld by law, that smut is protected speech. Strippers have a constitutional right, many believe, to "express" themselves. Indeed, so ingrained is this conviction that every few years or so we have a big culture-war fight over state-sponsored "art" - crucifixes in urine, bullwhip enemas, Virgin Marys in dung, etc. - and the defenders say that the revocation of a subsidy is indistinguishable from "censorship."

And this is what makes the debates about campaign finance "reform" so infuriating. The Founding Fathers would have seen absolutely nothing wrong with authorities censoring pornography. But they would be horrified by regulation of political speech. That is the whole point of the First Amendment - to protect political speech. Normally, when we debate civil liberty, we say that the extreme examples need to be allowed so that our core freedoms remain intact. From the pro-choice defense of partial-birth abortion to the NRA's advocacy for the right to own assault weapons, the argument is normally that we have to guard the fringe so that our most cherished liberties remain free.

But campaign finance "reform" turns this on its head. Anonymous political speech - today called "stealth ads" - is often censored precisely when it would have an effect: during a campaign. The Federalist Papers, you might recall, were written anonymously.

The Vermont law not only restricts what people can give to a campaign, which is bad enough, but it limits what a candidate can spend on his own campaign. A gubernatorial candidate can speak in his own defense until he spends $300,000, and then the state can tell him to shut up. This makes newspapers and television stations the real powerbrokers in the state, not the citizens.

I'm no free speech purist. But, since no one else is either, maybe we could borrow from the public-health sector. Let's treat politicians like Twinkies. They have to disclose their ingredients - i.e., where their money is from - but beyond that, let the buyer beware.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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