Vernuccio’s View: Campaign Regs Attack Free Speech

The trend towards restricting free speech through campaign finance regulations is gaining speed, on both the national and state levels.

The supporters of these anti-First Amendment moves allege that they are seeking to reduce the influence of money in politics.  In reality, their goals fall into two categories:

First, incumbent protection.  By establishing complicated and arcane rules concerning filing reports, with significant penalties for any less than perfect compliance, rather than simple requirements that the names of donors and the amounts provided (filed following the end of a campaign) they impose significant financial and legal burdens on challengers. Absent the access to professional assistance incumbents possess, citizens seeking to run must spend scarce resources and even more scarce time running a legally hazardous maze of requirements established by and for incumbents.

Second, partisan advantage. The Citizens United  decision held, as summarized byScotusBlog,  held that  “ Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including ads, especially where these ads were not broadcast.” Many on the left of the political spectrum believe that this upset advantages they long held, and have sought to enact legislation and regulation to restore that advantage.

There have been measures, some of which have passed and others blocked, that have sought to reduce the effectiveness of the First Amendment in an attempt to regain that advantage.

One extremist measure that failed was a piece of legislation introduced by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) to initiate the constitutional amendment process in order to limit the effectiveness of the First Amendment.  The proposed limitation on free speech rights would have excluded paid political speech from constitutional protection.

A radical legislative item has been approved by the New York State Legislature. The measure openly headlines its goal as “Enacting the nation’s strongest protections to combat Citizens United.” Among other mandates, it imposes a requirement of across the board disclosure of donors and staff, and provides a first-ever disclosure requirement for “political consultants.” At first glance, that appears comparatively innocuous. However, the devil is in the details. According to the legislation’s language, almost anyone who has ever had any relation or association with anyone even remotely connected to a campaign would have to be disclosed. In essence, it criminalizes anyone with an active interest in politics. Further, it substantially intimidates anyone seeking to provide summaries of their perspectives on the issues or advice on how to present those views from speaking with a candidate in any substantive manner. Independent advocacy groups promoting anything from environmental protection to benefits for veterans would be handicapped.

The details of the law provide a chilling attack on First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and association, in a manner that clearly helps incumbents and handcuffs challengers. Even nonpartisan organizations that openly disagree with particular policies of elected officials would be subjected to onerous reporting requirements merely for stating their beliefs, while incumbents could continue to speak their views unencumbered.

It gets even worse.  Assume you are a motorist who has become tired of replacing tires destroyed by potholes not repaired by the state, and you are angered that your elected official has done nothing to address the problem. You, acting entirely on your own, decide to air your grievance on social media, and perhaps write a few letters to newspapers.  Under the law’s definition, you should have registered as an independent committee, subject to all the red tape and legal requirements that implies. Clearly, that prevents private citizens not wishing to be subjected to penalties from criticizing their errant local official, or even seeking to organize friends and neighbors to protest.

The anti-First Amendment drive involves regulation as well as legislation. The Democrat members of the Federal Election Commission attempted to impose a penalty on one news network that has been uniformly critical of the Obama Administration, based on a complaint from an obscure candidate that he wasn’t invited to a televised debate. Of course, those same commissioners have never considered imposing similar sanctions against the Democrat National Committee, which has inappropriately tilted towards Hillary Clinton in her primary effort against Bernie Sanders. The attempt was blocked by Republican Commissioners.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held, even long before the Citizens United case, that campaign contributions and expenditures are protected by the First Amendment. Legalities aside, common sense in a free nation dictates that public statements made by citizens or organizations disagreeing (or agreeing) with their elected officials is a vital activity in a free nation.

The numerous attempts to use campaign regulation, which should reasonably only consist of open disclosure of all contributions, as a vehicle to immunize incumbents from criticism, and to tilt the balance of power in a partisan manner, is an affront to the entire concept of a free people.

Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy & Government

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