Two events sparked renewed hope this week that Americans might again freely criticize their government. It would be ever so nice were the First Amendment to come back into full force.
In Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life. From the questioning, and the addition of Justices Roberts and Alito to the High Court, it seems quite possible a protection for certain issue ads that mention a federal candidate's name and are broadcast during the 30-day primary or 60-day general election blackout period will be carved out.
If the ads don't tread too closely toward any suggestion that said candidate is unworthy to be re-elected. Or hint that in any way. And the people running the profit or non-profit corporation running the ads — what if they secretly hope such a terrible event could be the outcome of a better-informed electorate?
In the run-up to the 2004 elections, Wisconsin Right to Life, a non-profit corporation, sought to run ads that mentioned both Senators Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl. Feingold was up for re-election; Kohl was not. The ads warned that Senators were filibustering judicial nominations, but did not mention the fact that Feingold was a ringleader. The ads urged people to contact both Senators, but gave no phone number. Instead, the ad offered a website, which was very critical of Feingold's stance.
But the ads never ran. The FEC silenced them under McCain-Feingold, otherwise known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Hence the lawsuit by Wisconsin Right to Life, asking to be able to lobby citizens on issues of importance through the dominant broadcast media. Without being banned around election times when voters pay the greatest attention to politics.
Presently, if major legislation were to come before Congress close to primary or general elections, groups would be prohibited from any broadcast that refers to a specific candidate. It's illegal to say his name, but call your congressman anyway and urge him to support free speech.