Posts tagged ‘FEC’

The Progressive View of the First Ammendment

I didn't really pay all that much attention to the Supreme Court's election speech case yesterday.   But as I learn the reasoning that is driving the dissent by the four Justices on the Left, I am left deeply worried about the future of speech rights.

I really haven't put much time in understanding how Progressives justify strong speech protections for non-political activity (e.g. pornography) while eschewing them for political speech (in the form of multiple types of limits on the amount and timing of speech one is allowed prior to an election).  Justice Breyer, in writing for the minority in in McCutcheon, lays out what I suppose is the Progressive position.

First up, here is David Bernstein

But how can liberals, who so expansively interpret other constitutional provisions, narrow the First Amendment so that campaign finance no longer gets protection?

Justice Breyer’s dissent today shows the way, as he revives the old Progressive conception of freedom of speech as serving instrumental purposes (which he calls “First Amendment interests”), rather than protecting individual rights or reining in potential government abuses.  And once we identify those “First Amendment interests,” we must limit freedom of speech to ensure that they are advanced.

Thus, Justice Breyer, writes, “Consider at least one reason why the First Amendment protects political speech. Speech does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, political communication seeks to secure government action. A politically oriented ‘marketplace of ideas’ seeks to form a public opinion that can and will influence elected representatives.”  Just to make sure he’s not being too subtle, Breyer goes back to the source, Justice Brandeis, citing his opinion in Whitney for the proposition that freedom of speech is protected because it’s â€essential to effective democracy.”

Further showing off his affinity for the Progressive statism of a century ago (noted by Josh Blackman and me here), Breyer turns constitutional history on its head, by declaring that the purpose of the First Amendment was not to prevent government abuses, but to ensure â€public opinion could be channeled into effective governmental action.”  ...

Breyer adds that “corruption,” by which he means individuals engaging in too much freedom of speech via campaign donations, â€derails the essential speech-to-government-action tie. Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. Insofar as corruption cuts the link between political thought and political action, a free marketplace of political ideas loses its point.”

This strikes me as both tortured and dangerous.  Once one posits that that there is some ill-defined, un-measurable value like "promotion of positive government action" can be balanced against free speech, then the government gets a nearly unlimited ability to limit speech.

James Taranto also highlights parts of the decision

In making the case for the constitutionality of restrictions on campaign contributions, Breyer advances an instrumental view of the First Amendment. He quotes Justice Louis Brandeis, who in 1927 "wrote that the First Amendment's protection of speech was 'essential to effective democracy,' " and Brandeis's contemporary Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who in 1931 argued that " 'a fundamental principle of our constitutional system' is the 'maintenance of the opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people" (emphasis Breyer's).

After citing Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (!) views on the shortcomings of representative democracy, Breyer quotes James Wilson, one of the Founding Fathers, who argued in a 1792 commentary that the First Amendment's purpose was to establish a "chain of communication between the people, and those, to whom they have committed the exercise of the powers of government." Again quoting Wilson, Breyer elaborates: "This 'chain' would establish the necessary 'communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments' between the people and their representatives, so that public opinion could be channeled into effective governmental action."

And here's how Breyer sums it all up: "Accordingly, the First Amendment advances not only the individual's right to engage in political speech, but also the public's interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters."

What is democratic "order"?  What the hell is "collective" speech?  This is the kind of thing I would expect dictators-masquerading-as-elected-officials to spout as an excuse for suppressing dissent.  After all, doesn't dissent interfere with order?  How can we have collective speech when there are these folks out there disagreeing so much?   Again from Taranto:

It's important to note that when Breyer refers to "collective" rights, what he does not have in mind is individuals exercising their rights by voluntarily collecting themselves into organizations. In fact, the prevailing left-liberal view, most notably with respect to  (2010), is that collections of individuals, at least when they take corporate form, have (or should have) no rights.

The only "collective" that matters to Breyer is the one from which you cannot opt out except by the extreme measure of renouncing your citizenship: "the people" or "the public" as a whole. In Breyer's view, the purpose of the First Amendment is to see that (in Chief Justice Hughes's words) "the will of the people" is done. Individual rights are but a means to that end. To the extent they frustrate it, they ought to be curtailed. You will be assimilated.

Libertarian: I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

From Lee Goodman on an opinion piece in the WSJ

This startling assertion of government power became public in December when the FEC released an enforcement file in the case of a Boston television station's regular Sunday-morning news program, "On the Record." The station, WCVB, had invited two congressional candidates (a Democrat and a Republican) into its studio to appear on "On the Record" in the weeks leading up to the 2012 election and formatted the joint appearance as a 30-minute debate.

Another candidate (a libertarian) who was not invited filed a complaint alleging that the value of WCVB's production costs and airtime constituted unlawful corporate contributions to the two candidates who were invited.

Wow, I am sure glad the "libertarian" is pushing for government regulation of speech and government restrictions on the decision-making of private businesses.

A Few More Thoughts on Citizen's United

A friend of mine from Princeton days writes:

... and you seem in favor of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs the FEC, I was wondering how you feel about being a customer or supplier or competitor of large businesses who can spend far more than your business to influence the rules of the game.

From what I read, I am sure you have a compelling answer, but I would be scared to death. (Maybe that's why I work for a large corporation [Target] instead of attempting to run my own business.)

I thought this was a pretty good question, and I answered:

  1. I try hard not to make utilitarian arguments to Constitutional and rights issues.  As an example, I am sure we might have less crime if the police were empowered to incarcerate anyone they wanted without trial, but we don't do it that way.
  2. I worry most about corporate lobbying (e.g. by Immelt at GE) and this is unaffected by this ruling - it was legal before and after.   This decision allows corporate advertising, which is public and visible, which I can at least see and react to, as opposed to back room deal making.
  3. Libertarians certainly worry about your question, and why many of us fear that what we are creating in this country is a European-style corporate state, rather than socialism.  To a libertarian, the answer is not less speech, but less government power to pick winners and losers in commerce.

Paybacks are Hell, John McCain

I really try not to be vindictive, but I cannot tell you how happy this story, rife with irony, makes me:

John McCain has a campaign finance problem.
When his campaign was down and out, he agreed to take public funding
for the primaries. Public funding comes with spending limits overall
and by state. Also, a candidate who accepts funding cannot raise money
from private sources. Now that it is possible he will be the
nominee, McCain will want to be free of those fundraising and spending
limits, but he cannot withdraw from the public system. Or perhaps he
could but only with the approval of the FEC, which is not operating
because of a struggle over its nominees. The FEC does not now have a
quorum to meet and regulate. (The lack of a quorum was caused by Barack
Obama's hold on a nominee to the FEC, but never mind).

McCain will want out of the public system because he is probably
close to hitting the limit, and he could not get more money for his
campaign until he received public funding after the GOP convention
during the summer.  His "dark period" would thus be a period without
campaign funding that would run from spring until after the GOP
convention. During that "dark period" Obama or Hillary, both of whom
have not accepted public funding for the primaries, would be able to
continue spending money; some of that spending would be directed
against McCain after Obama or Hillary have secured their party's

HAHAHAHAHA.  OMG that is great.  Read it and weep, Mr. McCain-Feingold.  McCain has argued for years that money and speech are not the same thing, and that limiting campaign money is not equivalent to limiting speech.  He can comfort himself with that thought as he goes silent for three or four [update: seven?] months  while his opposition yaps away.

Gas Pricing Thought for the Day

Today I was working on a bid for a retail concession in a county park in California.  In these bids we usually promise a set percentage of sales as rent in exchange for the concession and use of certain fixed assets.  One of our standard clauses is to exempt gasoline sales (if there are any) from this rent calculation, because gas sales are so horribly low margin.  Considering the licensing, environmental, and safety issues, gasoline is always a money loser for us that we offer either a) because it is expected, as in the case at large marinas or b) because it gets people in the door to buy other stuff.  And I sell gas in rural areas where I have less price competition than in cities.

It is for this reason that I am always flabbergasted at how much time and attention the government and media tend to pay to retail gasoline pricing.  The portion of my business that is clearly the worst, most unprofitable piece, so much so I have to make special contract provisions for it, gets all the attention for price gouging.   It's like the FEC dedicating most of its labor to investigating Mike Gravel's campaign donations.  I mean, why bother, there's nothing there.

They Were For Free Speech Before They Were Against It

Last week I wrote here and here about free speech and the defeat of the bill to protect such speech online.  Matt Welch has more, and wonders as I did why Democrats, who applaud themselves for their staunch support of free speech, have suddenly abandoned the cause:

I was reminded of that neat bit of self-delusion yesterday when reading news
that House Democrats had followed The New York Times' odious
to kill
the Online
Freedom of Speech Act
, which would have exempted weblogs from Federal
Election Commission campaign finance rules. Once again, the party supported by
people who truly do believe they and they alone care deeply about free speech
has casually stomped on the freedom to speak.

The bill itself would have placed an extra layer of statutory protection over
what should already be (but isn't) protected by the First Amendment"”the right to
buy political advertisements online. As the mess of appalling FEC rules
currently stand, nobody can
legally purchase a broadcast, satellite, or cable advertisement that even
mentions a candidate for federal office within 60 days of a general election (30
days for a primary), unless he or she sets up or joins a political action
committee (PAC) and agrees to abide by the heavy regulations that govern PACs'
funding and disclosure....

I am a friend of free speech, they assure us at every turn, but we
need to draw lines
, because when yucky people spend money to communicate a
political message through the news media, it's just like child pornography,
reckless endangerment, and intellectual property theft. Combine this attitude
with a general cluelessness about the unintended speech-impairing
of FEC rule-making, and you get the obscene sight of the New
York Times
editorial board, which bathed itself and Judith Miller in the holy
waters of the First Amendment in 15
different editorials
, arguing with a straight face that "The bill uses
freedom of speech as a fig leaf."

While I took some shots at the NY Times myself, observing that they seem to be just like every other business facing a new source of competition:  They are running to the government to get the state to quash the upstarts.  However, I missed the wonderful irony that Welch found.  Consider the First Amendment:

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 peaceably to
assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It is indeed amazing that the NY Times believes that these words protect them from cooperating with a criminal investigation and allow them to ignore subpoenas, but believes that these same words do NOT protect political speech on the Internet. 

Extra credit work for those who support campaign finance limitations:  Find the clause in the First Amendment language above the differentiates between speech that was paid for and speech that was not paid for.

Exhibit #1 for the FEC v. Club for Growth

The FEC is suing the Club for Growth for campaign finance violations, basically arguing that they are controlled by the Republican Party and therefore not an independent political group (or whatever, I can't really be bothered to understand just what argument the FEC is using to trash the First Ammendment).

So I have Exhibit #1 for the trial.  Yesterday I published a blog piece blasting the Republican Party, concluding:

The Republicans are lost.  Combine this kind of spending with their
Patriot Act and Sarbabes-Oxley driven Big-Borther-Is-Watching
intrusiveness, luke-warm committment to free-trade, and bizarre , and I find nothing at all attractive about the party.  Only the economic insanity of the opposition party continues to keep Republicans in power.

If the Club for Growth is a subsidiary of the Republican Party, then why are they linking my post today from their home page? 

FEC Suing Club for Growth

In the first of what promises to be the first of a number of lawsuits against 527 groups under the horrendous McCain-Feingold act, the Federal Election Committee is suing the Club for Growth for its television adds in 2000 and 2002.  Essentially, the FEC is attempting to declare the Club for Growth to be under the control of and an arm of the Republican Party, and therefore subject to McCain-Feingold spending and donation limitations. 

This is absurd.  First, current election law and McCain-Feingold are a brazen assault on the first amendment, and shouldn't apply to anyone.  Second, to the extent that they are allowed to be applied to the two major political parties, their reach should be limited as much as possible to allow private citizens full freedom of political speech.

While the Club for Growth often supports Republicans over Democrats, browsing their web site makes it clear that they are by no means a shill for the Republican party.  They are strong supporters of reduced regulation and taxes, and have been just as hard on Republicans of late when Bush, Delay and Company have apparently abandoned these goals.  I have supported The Club for Growth for years and I am by no means a Republican.

Several lefty blogs have gleefully piled on because they don't like the Club for Growth.  This is very very shortsighted.  My sense is that the case against CfG is no better or worse than the case they can have against MoveOn or Soros or whatever.  The CfG suit may well be a Trojan Horse first case to immunize the Bush Administration and the FEC against charges that they are going after the President's critics.  Once immunized, under this theory, lefty organizations will be next. 

Bloggers represent one of the strongest and most vocal constituencies for freedom of speech -- we should be united in opposing this kind of action, whoever it is against.

Update:  More from Reason's Hit and Run

Creating Two Classes of Citizens

Over the past couple of days, the comment period and the resulting debate about FEC rule-making for blogs and campaign finance reform really has me simmering.  As a review, McCain-Feingold for the second* time in modern US history created a dual class of citizenship when it comes to First Amendment speech rights:  The "media" (however defined) was given full speech rights without limitations during an election, while all other citizens had their first amendment rights limited. 

These past few weeks, we have been debating whether this media exemption from speech restrictions should be extended to bloggers.  At first, I was in favorThen I was torn.  Now, I am pissed.  The more I think of it, it is insane that we are creating a 2-tiered system of first amendment rights at all, and I really don't care any more who is in which tier.  Given the wording of the Constitution, how do I decide who gets speech and who doesn't - it sounds like everyone is supposed to:

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 peaceably to
assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I have come to the conclusion that arguing over who gets the media exemption is like arguing about whether a Native American in 1960's Alabama should use the white or the colored-only bathroom:  It is an obscene discussion and is missing the whole point, that the facilities shouldn't be segregated in the first place.

I have read my handy pocket Constitution (courtesy of the Cato Institute) through a number of times, and I have yet to find any mention of special constitutional privileges or rights for employees of major media firms.  Unfortunately, we seem to act like its in there somewhere, as I wrote here as well, though in a different context.

*  Footnote:  This is not the first time we have created two classes of citizen when it comes to speech.  Over the last 30-40 years, we have differentiated "political" speech from "commercial" speech.  Until McCain-Feingold, political speech was pretty zealously protected by the courts, while we have gotten to the point that the government can pass nearly any law it wants restricting commercial speech.  Here is a simplistic example.  Unless I am over some spending limit, I can buy an ad in the NY Times and print in 70 point type "Bush Sucks" and no court would bat an eye.  If I am a pissed off Ford customer, I can print an ad in the Times saying "Ford Sucks" and probably be fine as well.  However, if I am a Honda dealer, and place an ad in the NY Times saying "Ford Sucks", I will likely get fined and slapped with an injunction.

When the Constitution says that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech" it sure seems like there aren't any qualifying words like "political" or "commercial"

Response to the FEC

The Online Coalition, put together to fight FEC restrictions to free speech rights as they apply to bloggers, has posted their official response to the FEC.  (hat tip:  Captains Quarters)

This is one of those efforts that leave me torn.  In effect, the rulemaking process is considering whether the media exemption in campaing finance laws should be extended to bloggers.  My point of view is that the media exemption should be extended to everyone.  That, 1) limits to money spent are the equivalent to limits on speech and 2) it is particularly insidious to create multiple classes of citizen, where one class of citizen (exempt media) have more political speech rights than others.

So, while I agree with their comments on blogging narrowly, I disagree when they make broader statements, like this one:

Finally, your rules should be informed by the regulatory purpose of the Federal Election Campaign Act. Your rule should address corruption, the appearance of corruption, the involvement of foreign nationals, or the use of the corporate or labor forms of organization and their "aggregations of wealth" in ways that drown out the views of others.

What does that last part I bolded mean?  Why is the Republican Party or one of George Soros's organizations proper aggregations of wealth for the political process but corporations and labor unions improper?

Anyway, campaign finance reform is one big hypocritical unconstitutional mess.  Let anyone give whatever they want to whomever with the only proviso of full disclosure over the Internet of all sources of funds.

AZ Elected Official Bounced for Overspending in Campaign

The Arizona Republic noted today:

In a historic move, the Citizens Clean Elections Commission voted
Thursday to oust state Rep. David Burnell Smith from office for
overspending his public campaign limits by more than $6,000.

The 5-0 vote marks the first time in the United States that a
legislator has been ordered to forfeit his office for violating a
publicly financed election system.

I don't know anything about Mr. Smith, so I don't know if I would agree with any of his politics or not -- I suspect though that he and I would not see eye to eye on a number of issues.  This case nevertheless leaves me with mixed feelings.

On one side, Mr. Smith signed on to the clean elections program (he doesn't have to) and accepted public funding, and thereby accepted spending limits.  He was obviously sloppy (as a minimum) in his accounting, or at worst flaunted the restrictions.

However, on the opposite side, I hate this type of campaign law. I don't like any restrictions on spending, which equate to limitations on first amendment speech rights.  I don't even like voluntary programs like this, because they use public money - read that as MY money - to finance candidates and viewpoints that I don't necessarily agree with.  In these voluntary programs, candidates are effectively being offered a publicly funded bribe to waive their first amendment rights, as argued in this suit.  I don't like seeing this next step in the arms race to limit political speech.  The ability of an unelected commision of busybodies and nitpickers to actually invalidate free elections and toss out elected officials merely because they used $6000 too much free speech is scary.  Would anyone in their right mind wish to grant this power to the FEC?

By the way, the language in the Republic article is funny, and shows their bias in this.  Note this line, emphasis added:

The commission's vote comes after three months of scrutiny in what has
been billed as the biggest test for Arizona's popular but controversial
system of taxpayer-funded political campaigns.

Here is a hint: whenever a reporter calls a program "popular", it means that it is a program that the reporter or the paper's editorial staff supports.  It does not mean that they have polling data backing up this claim.  Don't believe me?  Then note this line from the same article:

Some commissioners admitted they were reluctant to attempt to overturn
the wishes of voters in a legislative district but said it was more
important to uphold the wishes of the state's voters, who narrowly
approved the Clean Elections initiative
in 1998.

Ahh, so this "popular" program was only "narrowly approved".  In fact, I looked it up.  Smith won his election by a far larger margin of victory than did the Clean Elections initiative.  Should the AZ Republic be calling him the "popular" legislator? 

Support the Online Coalition and Free Speech

Should Maureen Dowd have the right to more political speech than I?  Should George Will enjoy more rights than you?

I signed the petition from the Online Coalition opposing speech limits in the blogosphere.

We are concerned about the potential impact that Judge Colleen
Kollar-Kotelly's decision in the U.S. District Court for the District
of Columbia in Shays v. FEC, 337 F. Supp. 2d 28 (D.D.C. 2004) and the
FEC's upcoming rulemaking process may have on political communication
on the Internet.

One area of great concern is the potential regulation of bloggers
and other online journalists who distribute political news and
commentary exclusively over the web. While paid political advertising
on the Internet should remain subject to FEC rules and regulations,
curtailing blogs and other online publications will dampen the impact
of new voices in the political process and will do a disservice to the
millions of voters who rely on the web for original, insightful
political commentary.

Under the current rules, "any news story, commentary, or editorial
distributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station,
newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication," is exempt from
reporting and coordination requirements. It is not clear, however, that
the FEC's "media exemption" provides sufficient protection for those of
us in the online journalism community.

As bipartisan members of the online journalism, blogging, and
advertising community, we ask that you grant blogs and online
publications the same consideration and protection as broadcast media,
newspapers, or periodicals by clearly including them under the Federal
Election Commission's "media exemption" rule.

I have always been opposed to McCain-Feingold's limitations on political speech, so my objection to current law goes beyond just extending the media exemption to blogs.  I support a broader extension of the media exemption from political speech restrictions to -- call me crazy -- all citizens, something I thought the First Amendment took care of but I guess we have to fight for again.  Actually, what might be more useful is to fight for an elimination of the media exemption altogether - this would likely raise such a howl from the media that McCain-Feingold (also known as the incumbent and MSM protection act) would soon be overturned.