Tag: First Amendment

Time to End the Campaign Finance ‘Reform’ Ruse

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Looking at the repeated failures of campaign finance reforms, is it time to end the restrictions?

My response:

Funny, we didn’t hear the primal scream about campaign finance from liberal Democrats during the 2008 campaigns, when money was pouring into their coffers from everywhere. Do we need any better evidence of the hypocrisy surrounding their screams this year? If so, turn to the lead editorial in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. It’ll tell you all you need to know about the campaign finance “reform” ruse that has been going on for years.

As I’ve written often at the Arena, the true aim of this game is incumbent protection, and it has been from the beginning. But thanks to the First Amendment, incumbents can’t shut down all private campaign financing, or regulate it in many of the ways that have been tried over the years. So after each new “reform,” private money – which is speech – finds new ways to try to influence election outcomes. The reformers real beef, then, is with the First Amendment. They won’t say it. But there it is. It’s time to end this nonsense.

Snyder v. Phelps: The Constitution Protects ‘Outrageous’ Speech Too

I’ve resisted commenting on Snyder v. Phelps, the “funeral protest case,” because, as the old saying goes, hard cases make bad law.  And in this instance, really weird and repugnant speech makes for a lot of sound and fury signifying very little.

Still, the bizarre and inflammatory facts of the case – protestors show up at soldiers’ funerals to make the point that these deaths are God’s retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexuality – have gained plenty of media interest, particularly during this relatively uneventful term at the Supreme Court.  So I have commented a few times on the radio and yesterday attended the oral argument, the transcript of which you can read here and audio for which should be released on the Court’s website tomorrow.

At the end of the day, this case implicates all sorts of legal issues but the First Amendment is almost tangential to it.  A private cemetery can and should remove unwanted visitors for trespassing – but the Phelpses didn’t enter the cemetery.  A town can pass ordinances restricting the time, place, and manner of protests – but the Phelpses stayed within all applicable regulations and followed police instructions.  Violent or aggressive protestors can be both prosecuted and sued for assault, harassment, and the like – but the Phelpses’ protests are neither loud nor involve “getting up in the grill” of people, as their lawyer (and church member) put it during oral argument.  In short, there’s very little to this case and the Phelpses’ actions, ugly and objectionable as they are, are as constitutionally protected as a neo-Nazi parade.  If people don’t like that, they can change state laws to put certain further restrictions on protests near funerals or other sensitive areas – or federal laws in the case of military cemeteries—but they shouldn’t be able to sue simply for being offended.  Eugene Volokh has a more detailed analysis in the Wall Street Journal.

Oh, and as for predicting how the Court will rule, I’ll say 8-1 for the Phelpses in a narrow opinion, with Justice Alito dissenting (as he did last year in United States v. Stevens, the “depictions of animal cruelty” case).

The Next Step for SpeechNow

The plaintiffs in the SpeechNow.org case have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to decide “whether, under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, the federal government may require an unincorporated association that makes only independent expenditures to register and report as a political committee.”

You can read all about this important case here.

President Obama’s Speech Czar

President Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius is still threatening to bankrupt insurance companies who tell their customers that ObamaCare’s mandates will increase premiums by more than 2 percent, even though her department’s projections show that, starting this week, just one of the law’s new mandates will increase some premiums by nearly 7 percent.

In a CBS News story last week, Sebelius tried to defend those indefensible threats:

But don’t the insurance companies have a right to make their own analyses and claims to their customers?

“Absolutely, they have a right to communicate with their customers,” replied HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “We just want to make sure that communication is as accurate as possible.”

The government can and should police fraud – but that’s not what Sebelius is doing.  She is suppressing legitimate differences of opinion in the pursuit of political gain.

What if the government had said, “Absolutely, CBS News has a right to communicate with its customers – we just want to make sure that communication is as accurate as possible”?  Should the government be able to put CBS News out of business if it decides those communications are not as accurate as possible? How about the National Rifle Association?  Should the next Republican administration be able to put the Center for American Progress, the SEIU, or The New York Times out of business if it decides their communications are not as accurate as possible?

You don’t have to oppose ObamaCare to see the danger here.

Regulator, Leave Those Kids Alone

“These kids today and their violent [blank]….” This refrain has been around for as long as there have been kids – and elders to shake their fists at them. In the 19th century, dime novels and “penny dreadfuls” were blamed for social ills and juvenile delinquency. In the 1950s, for example, psychologist Fredric Wertham’s attack on comic books – in his bluntly titled book Seduction of the Innocent – so ignited the national ire that Congress held hearings on the cartoon menace. In response, the comic book industry voluntarily adopted a ratings system. Similarly, backlash against the movie industry and the music industry (e.g., Tipper Gore’s attack on gangsta rap) caused those respective industries to also adopt voluntary ratings systems.

The videogame industry also adopted an effective and responsive ratings system after congressional hearings in the early ’90s. Thinking this ratings system ineffective, however, California passed a violent videogame law, which prohibits minors from purchasing games that are deemed “deviant,” “patently offensive,” and lacking in artistic or literary merit. The gaming industry challenged the California law and the Ninth Circuit struck it down on First Amendment grounds.

California now seeks to overturn the lower court’s ruling by arguing that violent videogames deserve an exemption from First Amendment protection. Cato’s brief supports the videogame manufacturers and highlights not only the oft-repeated and oft-overblown stories of the “seduction of the innocent,” but the less-repeated stories of the effectiveness and preferability of industry self-regulation.

We show that not only does self-regulation avoid touchy First Amendment issues but that entertainment industries take self-regulation very seriously. Moreover, evidence from the Federal Trade Commission shows that the existing videogame ratings system works more effectively than any other regulatory method. Adding a level of governmental control, even if were constitutional, would be counterproductive.

The case of Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association will be argued November 2 (coincidentally election day).

Clean Elections Act Dirties the First Amendment

In 1998, after years of scandals ranging from governors being indicted to legislators taking bribes, Arizona passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act. This law was intended to “clean up” state politics by creating a system for publicly funding campaigns.

Participation in the public funding is not mandatory, however, and those who do not participate are subject to rules that match their “excess” private funds with disbursals to their opponent from the public fund. In short, if a privately funded candidate spends more than his publicly funded opponent, then the publicly funded candidate receives public “matching funds.”

Whatever the motivations behind the law, the effects have been to significantly chill political speech. Indeed, ample evidence introduced at trial in a lawsuit challenging the law showed that privately funded candidates changed their spending — and thus their speaking — as a result of the matching funds provisions. In elections, where there is no effective speech without spending money, the matching funds provision of the Clean Elections Act diminishes the quality and quantity of political speech.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court in Davis v. FEC struck down a similar provision in the federal McCain-Feingold law in which individually wealthy candidates were penalized for spending their own money by triggering increased contribution limits for their opponents. Even this modest opportunity for opponents to raise more money was found to be an unconstitutional burden on political speech.

Cato has thus filed a brief supporting a request that the Supreme Court review the lower court’s decision upholding Arizona’s Clean Elections Act.  We highlight Davis (in which Cato also filed a brief) and numerous other cases that point to a clear conclusion: if the mere possibility of your opponent getting more money is unconstitutional, then the guarantee that your opponent will get more money (Arizona’s act automatically disburses matching funds) is even more so. Allowing the government to abridge political speech in this fashion not only diminishes the quality of our political debate, but it ignores the fundamental principle upon which the First Amendment is premised: that the government cannot be trusted to regulate political speech for the public benefit. 

The Supreme Court will decide later this fall whether to review this case, McComish v. Bennett.

Consistency

Justice Breyer appeared on Good Morning America today, telling George Stephanopoulous that burning the Koran may not be protected by the First Amendment. As Breyer puts it, this may be akin to “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” since internet-driven publicity could bring retaliatory violence here or abroad.

Let me get this straight – burning a Koran isn’t protected the same way that burning a Bible or the American flag is, or a neo-Nazi march through a neighborhood of Holocaust survivors. The “crowded theater” is now global, and all someone has to do to diminish the First Amendment rights of all Americans is threaten to use violence if an offending word is uttered.

That’s not a consistent interpretation of the First Amendment, but Breyer’s record of consistency isn’t very good when constitutional rights may put lives at risk.