Steve Chapman

But even if the sponsors could get their bill passed and upheld in court, it wouldn't affect the basic liberty of U.S. corporations to participate in election debates -- which is what really cheeses the critics. Overruling the decision would require a constitutional amendment. Drastic as that may sound, some people are for it.

Democratic Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico have introduced an amendment to give the federal government and the states unlimited power to regulate campaign fundraising and expenditures. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has endorsed the idea.

When politicians start trying to amend the Constitution, it usually means they have gone off the rails. The campaign finance amendment is the liberal equivalent of the flag-burning amendment once pushed by conservatives, which barely missed getting through Congress.

Both amendments responded to a Supreme Court decision that offended some people on a visceral level. Both were solutions to a problem that had yet to materialize in any significant way.

Both also represent an attempt to narrow the scope of a fundamental liberty. They would create a large, unsightly exception to the First Amendment.

The leftish group Public Citizen, in a moment of creative inspiration, asserted that the measure would "restore the First Amendment." Yes, it would "restore" the First Amendment, which protects free speech, by silencing some voices on matters of importance in a democracy.

As the court put it, "The First Amendment prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for engaging in political speech." If the amendment were to win ratification, Congress would be free to tell some people: "Shut up, or go to jail."

That's the difference between a corporation and a government. A corporation can spend millions trying to influence your choices. A government, granted sufficient power, can just take them away.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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