Paul Jacob

The First Amendment, I think I’ll keep it.

Not so for 44 sitting U.S. Senators — all Democrats. They’re proposing Senate Joint Resolution 19, which would amend the U.S. Constitution by scratching out a sorta important part of the Bill of Rights.

Senate Joint Resolution 19 would repeal the First Amendment.

Well, not all of it, actually: just our right to speak out politically, to engage in political action and campaign for or against those in power.

The new amendment would remove all protections against Congress regulating our speech, at least insofar as we have to spend even a plug nickel for a megaphone in what they deem to be their campaigns. Yes, the idea is to reward incumbent politicians — the same dudes earning the approval of less than one in ten Americans and suffering from a screaming conflict of interest — with the carte blanche power to pass any rules and regulations and limits they so desire on both the raising and spending of money by their challengers and organizations opposed to their policies.

SJR 19’s lead sponsor, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) states that his goal in re-writing our rights is to “give the power back to the Congress.”

But, wait, that would constitute amending reality as well. Congress never had any such power. The instructions in the Constitution’s First Amendment were written quite soberly, and remain crystal clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

SJR 19 would simply remove those words “freedom of speech” above from our highest law and allow Congress to make any speech-regulating law they damn well feel like.

The guts of the new amendment reads: “Congress shall have power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents with respect to Federal elections, including through setting limits on — the amount of contributions to candidates for nomination for election to, or for election to, Federal office; and the amount of funds that may be spent by, in support of, or in opposition to such candidates.”

So, were Congress to pass a law prohibiting campaigns from spending more than $10,000 on a run for office — thereby denying challengers the ability to spend enough to compete with the superior name recognition of longtime incumbents — it would then be constitutional, instead of, as now, unconstitutional.

If Congress outlawed “outside groups” (associations other than the candidate’s campaign committee) from spending any money to publicize the name and track record of incumbents, it would become, instead of a gross violation of the First Amendment, an enforceable and lawful regulation.

Our brand new First Amendment would not contain a single word of restraint regarding the regulation of political speech. Instead, powerful congressional incumbents would wield complete and total control over all money to be raised and spent by their competitors and by everyone engaged in any way, shape or form in the debate.

The whole point of the First Amendment was to protect the people’s right to criticize those in power. It was meant to restrain Congress. That’s why it begins, “Congress shall make no law . . .” The whole point of SJR 19 is to do the opposite, to protect politicians from citizens by providing Congress precisely what our Founders denied to it: any power to restrain the speech of citizens by legislation.

In fact, this new amendment’s negation of rights is so sweeping that the text’s authors felt the need to include this statement in the amendment: “Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress the power to abridge the freedom of the press.”

No, just abridging freedom of speech. For now.

The New York Times and the Washington Post need not worry.

When I alerted readers of my Common Sense e-letter to the danger of SJR 19, one savvy commenter insisted that SJR 19 stands little chance of passing. Indeed, in this session of Congress, “freedom of speech” stands little chance of being ripped out of the Bill of Rights via SJR 19.

It would require two-thirds support — 67 votes in the Senate.

But how placid should we be about 44 percent of the U.S. Senate favoring a return to government absolutism?

Plus, the number of supporters may be greater than just the 44 sponsors. The Democratic Senate leadership has announced that Senate Joint Resolution 19 — what you and I should think of as the “Remove Freedom of Speech from Our Constitution Act” — will be brought to a vote this year.

Let’s hope it is well before the election. We need to know where all the Senators stand on reversing the First Amendment to put Congress in charge of what can be said in politics.

Those aware of the many exhortations to the IRS from Senate Democrats in recent years, urging an official Washington clampdown on political groups, are not surprised at SJR 19’s blatant assault on fundamental rights and the basic notion of small-d democracy.

The word “extremist” gets tossed about easily in Washington, at least when aimed at tea party activists, libertarians and conservatives. But what could be more extreme than proposing to machete the First Amendment and cross out “freedom of speech” from our rights?


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.