Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Enough is Enough

Three years ago the U.S. Supreme Court handed down McConnell v. FEC, a decision that upheld McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on political speech. The future seemed bleak for any limits on government regulation of speech and association.

But things are looking up. Today the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life.

McCain-Feingold made it a federal crime for any corporation to broadcast, 30 to 60 days before an election, any communication that mentions a federal candidate for elected office and is aimed relevant voters.  Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL) is an ideological corporation that accepted funding from other corporations. Its members wanted to run ads in 2004 urging citizens of their state to contact its two senators and urge them to oppose a filibuster of judicial nominees. Sen. Russ Feingold, one of the senators and a co-author of the law in question, was running for re-election. Wisconsin Right to Life’s advertising plans thus constituted a federal crime. At least, they were a crime if the relevant part of McCain-Feingold was constitutional as applied to WRTL. In fact, McCain-Feingold was constitutionally invalid in this case and probably many others.

To understand why requires a quick summary of campaign finance law. Congress long ago prohibited contributions to candidates from the general treasuries of corporations and labor unions. But corporations could fund ads commenting on the issues of the day. However, if those ads directly advocated the election or defeat of a candidate, they became an attempt to circumvent the ban on corporate contributions and thus a federal crime. In Buckley v. Valeo, the Court said such “express advocacy” contained words like “elect” and “defeat.” If an ad did not use the words, it was not express advocacy and hence, not subject to campaign finance regulation.

In the 1990s some businesses and labor unions started funding advertising that met the legal standards for issue advocacy. The ads were legal and often highly critical of vulnerable members of Congress in the run up to an election. McCain-Feingold made such speech illegal. It said corporations could not fund ads that mentioned a candidate for federal office with 30 to 60 days of an election. The McConnell Court went along arguing that the ads in question were the “functional equivalent of express advocacy.” In the WRTL decision, the author of the majority opinion, Justice Roberts, has contracted rather than expanded the scope of government regulation. He has done so by redefining the meaning of express advocacy: “a court should find that an ad is the functional equivalent of express advocacy only if the ad is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.” The WRTL ad seemed to a reasonable person to be attempt at grassroots organizing. Hence, WRTL wins.

But this standard implicates more than this case. Many of the ads in the 1990s that were the target of McCain-Feingold might have been free of regulation under this standard. Reasonable people could have believed that the ads were attempts to persuade voters to contact their representatives. The political space free of government regulation seems to have expanded. Indeed, it seems possible that many fewer ads will be judged the “functional equivalent of express advocacy” in the future.

So, the good guys won one at last. “Enough is enough,” as Justice Roberts writes in considering efforts to further expand government control of politics.

But still there is reason to worry. The majority did not declare the relevant part of McCain-Feingold unconstitutional. Justice Alito did suggest a willingness to hear constitutional challenges to the McConnell decision (and hence, to McCain-Feingold). Justice Roberts also set out some criteria for the “express advocacy” that are fairly broad. An ad that mentions “an election, candidacy, political party, or challenger; or [that takes] a position on a candidate’s character, qualifications, or fitness for office” could become express advocacy depending on future judgments by the Court and perhaps, by the Federal Election Commission.

An important battle has been won. The war continues.

Free Speech, Loophole, or Partisan Politics?

One of the things I find striking about today’s Supreme Court rulings is the extent to which the free-speech angle is downplayed in media coverage of the Wisconsin Right to Life decision. Consider the LA Times write-up of today’s decisions:

The Supreme Court gave President Bush and Republican leaders two important victories today by clearing the way for corporate-funded broadcast ads before next year’s election and by shielding the White House’s “faith-based initiative” from challenge in the courts.

The term “speech” only appears twice in the coverage of the decision, and in both cases they’re in quotes of the majority decision. The reporter never describes the case as a free-speech case himself. And let’s be clear here: “corporate funded” doesn’t mean ads funded by Exxon-Mobil or Microsoft. In this particular case, it was a pro-life organization—a grassroots non-profit—that was being prevented from promoting its views on television. The NRA, the ACLU, the Sierra Club, and dozens of other genuine issue advocacy organizations had their free speech rights curtailed by BCRA. Now check out the coverage of the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case later in the same story:

In a third ruling, the court gave school principals the authority to discipline students who advocate the use of illegal drugs at schools. Roberts said the court was not rejecting the notion that high school students had free-speech rights, but rather making clear that these rights were limited, especially when students advocated in favor of illegal drugs.

The decision reversed a free-speech ruling in favor of a high school student from Juneau, Alaska, who had been suspended for holding up a banner that read “Bong hits for Jesus.”

So the right to unfurl a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner is a free-speech issue, but the right to air television ads critical of elected officials is just partisan politics.

You see the same sort of bias in the New York Times coverage of the ruling. The word “speech” doesn’t appear in the story until the fifth paragraph, at which point it’s used in the following sentence: “Its detractors see it as interference with free speech.” In contrast, in the second paragraph, the article states that “the high court opened a significant loophole in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.”

On the other hand, the headline in the Times write-up of the “Bong Hits” case is: “Supreme Court Limits Students’ Speech Rights.” The article starts off by saying ” The Supreme Court tightened limits on student speech Monday.”

So when a high school principal prohibits a student from displaying a nonsensical “Bong hits 4 Jesus” sign, that’s a restriction on the student’s speech. However, when Congress tells Wisconsin Right-to-Life and the ACLU that they’re not allowed to buy ads criticizing elected officials in the month before an election, that’s merely closing a loophole in campaign finance law.

Stealing Property

A headline in the Saturday Washington Post reads:

Russia’s Gazprom Purchases Siberian Gas Field From BP

The story begins:

The state-controlled energy giant Gazprom on Friday bought a vast natural gas field in Siberia from a unit of British-based petroleum conglomerate BP, continuing the Kremlin’s policy of shifting control of the country’s major energy projects from foreign to state hands.

The last part of the sentence begins to hint at what really happened, a truth that is concealed by words like “purchases” and “bought.” In fact, the Russian government and its giant energy firm Gazprom forced BP to sell, as it has forced other companies to turn valuable properties over to Gazprom and the oil company Rosneft, often through the use of trumped-up tax or regulatory issues.

Journalists should be straightforward about such things. Gazprom did not “purchase” a gas field from BP. This was no “willing buyer, willing seller” transaction. It would more accurately be described as a seizure, a confiscation, or at best a forced sale.

The Wall Street Journal used similar language. The New York Times, to its credit, was more honest and clear: Its headline read, “Moscow Presses BP to Sell a Big Gas Field to Gazprom,” and the story began, “Under pressure from the Russian government, BP agreed on Friday to sell one of the world’s largest natural gas fields to Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly, in the latest apparently forced sale that benefited a Russian state company.”

Footnote: Today is the second anniversary of the Kelo decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could take private property for the benefit of other private owners such as developers. In a stinging dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote:

The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory. …Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.

The United States is not Russia. But O’Connor’s warning that “the beneficiaries [of forced takings] are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms” is certainly borne out — not just by a new Institute for Justice report on eminent domain in action — but by the actions in Putin’s Russia.

Earmarks

As annual spending bills wind their way through Congress this year, there are ongoing battles over earmarked funding for members’ pet projects.

To get a sense of what the battle is about, check out this newly released list of earmarks in the House Interior appropriations bill.

People scour such lists looking for embarrassing bridges to nowhere in Alaska and indoor rainforests in Iowa.

But the real issue is federalism, not earmarks. Many of these funding projects are not federal responsibilities at all. Look at all the local sewer facilities on the list under the EPA. Why can’t Seattle, Buffalo, and other cities fund their own toilet pipes?

Of course, they can. But the idea of federalism has disappeared from public discussion in an orgy of state and local lobbying of compliant Washington politicians. For history and analysis of this issue, see here

(Oh, wait a minute, take that back — my guy Jim Moran (D-VA) scored $700K to clean up Four Mile Run beside where I live in Northern Virginia. Nice job Jim! You’ve got my vote!) 

The Islamofascists’ Reign of Terror

The New York Times reports on American troops’ efforts to push Al Qaeda insurgents out of Baqaba, Iraq, and liberate residents from their strict rule:

The insurgents have imposed a strict Islamic creed, and some have even banned smoking, one resident told Capt. Jeff Noll, the commander of Company B of the First Battalion, 23rd Infantry, during his patrol through the neighborhood.

Banning smoking? President Bush is right — if we don’t stop them in Iraq, we’ll have to fight them in Manhattan, and Montgomery County, and San Francisco….

A Reason to be Against Donor Disclosure

Several interest groups (Public Citizen, Common Cause and Democracy 21) have lately been trying to persuade Congress to set up an independent ethics panel to police members. They also want Congress to allow outside groups (like themselves) to file ethics complaints with the panel.

A House task force now proposes to grant them their wish. However, the task force also requires any group filing an ethics complaint to the new panel to disclose its donors.

The interest groups are not amused. Craig Holman of Public Citizen told The Hill:  “you can imagine how upsetting this is to the donor community.”

I do not support an independent ethics panel. However, Holman is correct here. A group that filed a complaint would open its donors to retribution by the named member or by his party or allies in Congress. Disclosure might even discourage donors from supporting these interest groups, thereby burdening the contributors’ rights to association and speech.

In fact, I think we should extend Craig Holman’s point to other donors. People who contribute to the campaigns of challengers to incumbents should also not have to disclose their donations. After all, their contribution (like an ethics complaint) threatens a member of Congress and might well bring about retribution.

Sauces, gooses, ganders. If disclosure threatens the interests of the donors to certain influential interest groups that might irritate people in power, surely it also threatens those who contribute to challengers to incumbents. These donors, like your average Common Cause contributor, should also be free of the burden of revealing their political activities to those who might do them harm.

Antigua and Barbuda Raises the Stakes

$3.4 billion. That’s the price tag Antigua and Barbuda, the island nation which successfully argued that the United States was violating its obligations to open its market to foreign online gambling providers, puts on its lost revenues as a result of the U.S. ban on some internet gambling. (More here and here.)

They are seeking to recover the money by withdrawing the protection they provide for American intellectual property (see here). The idea behind this sort of action is to harness the power of a powerful lobby group (in this case, Hollywood and the software industry) to counteract the influence of anti-internet gambling groups: If intellectual property owners are caught in the cross-fire of the dispute, maybe the United States government would feel more pressure to comply with the series of rulings against current U.S. regulations.

The push to seek compensation through the World Trade Organization comes just one day after the European Union has indicated it wants compensation for the loss of market access, but through further opening of other sectors in lieu of lifting the ban. When the United States announced last month that it was responding to their loss at the WTO by seeking to “clarify” its commitments, they indicated that they would not provide compensation to Members harmed by the ban, as is called for by WTO rules. The USTR had reasoned that since they never intended to allow internet gambling in the first place (suggesting that their commitment to do just that was an “oversight”), then Members could not expect to receive any sort of compensation in return for solidifying the ban.

We’re planning to hold a forum on this topic on 25th July. Stay tuned for details.