Free speech -- which means, to entirely too many self-styled liberals, "speech I agree with" -- won a modest victory this week in the U.S. Supreme Court. A conservative majority of five reminded their four liberal brothers and sisters that the First Amendment to the Constitution encourages us to chatter on till kingdom come.
That's to say (a wonderful word, "say") that trying to limit political speech by law is a goal worthier of dictators than of democrats.
Wisconsin Right to Life, in 2004, had urged that Wisconsin voters urge their U.S. senators -- Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, Democrats both -- to help end a Democratic filibuster against President Bush's judicial nominees.
Sounds like good ole free speech, yes? Turned out to sound entirely too much like it under provisions of the McCain-Feingold (yes, that Feingold) Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, signed by George W. Bush. Said provisions of said act ban corporate or union advertising 30 days before a primary or 60 before a general election.
Sen. Feingold's constituents were being urged by Wisconsin Right to Life not to burn crosses on his lawn, not to pelt him with rotten tomatoes whenever he left home. No, just to tell him what they thought. Members of Wisconsin Right to Life -- Feingold constituents all -- wanted their senator's help in unbarricading the confirmation process for judicial nominees of the Bush administration. That was it. Except that McCain-Feingold provided that Wisconsin Right to Life couldn't use Feingold's name in the 30-day window before a primary. Though he had no opponent.
Don't we think that's just a little bit high-handed and undemocratic? The high court majority both thought so and said so, if by another of those pencil-shaving-thick majorities that characterize the top court of a divided nation.
As Chief Justice John Roberts observed, "[T]he First Amendment requires us to err on the side of political speech rather than suppressing it." Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito offered that official reproach to censorship; Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, while agreeing, allowed that they would have gone further, striking down the whole disputed section of McCain-Feingold telling Americans what to say and how to say it.
The court's four liberals were distraught. "After today," said the four -- Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and David Souter -- "the possibilities for regulating corporate and union campaign money are unclear."
If that's, in fact, the case, shall we let out a full-throated "Yahhhhooooooo"? Even better than "unclear" would be "dead." That a respected Republican -- John McCain -- should have his name attached to a piece of legislative trash like McCain-Feingold in no way dignifies such a package. Mainly, it serves sad notice of how widespread is becoming the impulse to define what, in our supposed land of liberty, can be said and what can't be.
That so-called liberals have put themselves in charge of curbing free speech suggests a larger kind of linguistic corruption than the likes of Russ Feingold have ever owned up to. A corporation or union, in an advertisement, can't mention a candidate's name just before an election? Why ever not? Don't the mention of the name and the context of the mentioning represent information a voter can use to appraise the mentioner's motives? Is mere mention tantamount to attempted corruption and coercion?
The McCain-Feingold way of thinking about voters isn't very complimentary of those who, since so very, very wisely voting for McCain, Feingold, etc., have obviously grown so stupid they can't be trusted to judge deceptions for themselves.
I like the political irony here, don't you? The voters who elected me are so dumb I have to control what they can hear in the future.
I like another kind of irony as well. The president who signed McCain-Feingold placed on the high court two of the justices -- Roberts and Alito -- who quashed this particular mischief. It's one more piece of evidence that nobody knows everything, and that, accordingly, everybody deserves a hearing.