Suspending Free Speech in Politics

Suspending Free Speech in Politics

Though I have decided to support Barack Obama for president this year, one of the great negatives on my checklist for him and for the Democratic party is campaign finance laws. When I put the candidates side-by-side, however, McCain isn’t a significant improvement on that point.

This is illustrated by this story on CQPolitics, informing us that the FEC has deadlocked on whether the National Right to Life Committee can use particular phrasing in some issue ads they want to display. The sentence is: “Barack Obama : a candidate whose word you can’t believe in.”

Now understand that I don’t like the ads. I’ve received print versions and I didn’t like those. This is not speech of which I approve. I’m pro-choice, despite my own dislike of abortion. But on the other hand, I fail to see how it is not speech that can be permitted.

Having dealt with non-profits myself, I do, in fact, understand that particular tax categories are confined to particular activities. Thus it’s generally OK with me from a constitutional point of view that churches are not permitted to explicitly endorse candidates, or that non-profits of particular types be restricted in their political activity in order to have a particular tax status.

I say generally OK, because I think it falls within constitutional boundaries, but I question whether the lines are correctly drawn. In order to grant tax exempt status, the IRS has to define what is a church, what is a charitable non-profit, and so forth. But it is nonetheless troubling to me that a pastor can say “I think you should vote for a pro-life candidate (wink, wink)” without having his tax status threatened, but cannot say “I think you should vote for X who is a pro-life candidate” without risking it. Apparently if he says, “You can’t believe in X as a candidate” that would also be problematic. This is a whole subject in itself, but I can’t really discuss the rest without at least brushing against it.

In this case, we’re talking about what various political action committees can do during an election, and bluntly it sounds to me like a frontal assault on free speech. I despise the ads. I think they should be legal. I think these election laws are not about making elections fairer; they’re about silencing people we don’t like. I don’t approve of silencing people. (Very narrow exceptions, such as incitement, are alright, though I draw the line as far out as possible consistent with some order.)

This is one of the reasons I refuse to register as one of the major parties, besides the biggest reason, which is simply that I think it’s wrong to have political parties enshrined in law. Neither of our parties actually stands, even in a general way, for freedom. They stand in a general way for the freedoms of their constituent groups, and against those of others.

I would like to see our politicians actually support free speech, whether it is spoken for them or against them. “Fair speech,” speech that is distributed according to someone’s idea of fairness, is ephemeral, indefinable, and ultimately results in censorship.

That’s what we have in this case–the FEC deadlocked on whether to censor the speech of the NRLC. In a country that prides itself on constitutional freedoms, it shouldn’t even be an issue.

3 thoughts on “Suspending Free Speech in Politics

  1. But they’re not saying the ad can’t be run, are they? They’re saying THAT group can’t run the ad AND enjoy tax-exempt status.

    Free speech is a right guaranteed by the constitution. Not paying taxes… not so much 😉

    1. Actually, it appears to me that the ruling would apply to unions, corporations and other folks with PACs. These are not tax exempt, or at least not tax exempt in the same way. There are a variety of statuses.

      Personally, I think the lines are drawn too tightly even there, but in this case my complaint is about any entity that is not part of a campaign or a registered 527 not being permitted to say whatever they please about the election.

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