This week, Hillary Clinton unveiled her proposals to reform campaign finance laws. Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s proposals would make it much more difficult to criticize, you guessed it, Hillary Clinton.
Accompanying the announcement is her new campaign video, which acknowledges the elephant in the room: Citizens United was a case about censoring a movie that criticized Hillary Clinton. But rather than this biasing her opinion on the case, the video argues that her connection to the case gives her insight because “she knows firsthand what it’s done to our democracy.”
Clinton has pledged to use overturning Citizens United as a litmus test for Supreme Court justices, and she also supports a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.
This wouldn’t be the first time a politician pushed to censor criticism as a public service. In 1798, President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it a crime to “write, print, utter, or publish” anything that might bring “the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States into disrepute or to excite against them…the hatred of the good people of the United States.” Maybe we should just resuscitate that law and add the name “Hillary Clinton.”
According to her video, Citizens United was “a conservative organization that wanted to bring down Hillary Clinton’s candidacy because they didn’t like who she is, they don’t like what she stands for”–in other words, the quintessence of political speech protected by the First Amendment. Yet, because Hillary: The Movie was funded by a corporation–a nonprofit corporation founded to forward conservative causes–the movie and its accompanying advertisements ran afoul of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. In short, the government was explicitly censoring political speech.
In Clinton’s words, according to the Associated Press: “I want to tell you, Citizens United was about me. Think how that makes me feel. A lot of people don’t know that, but the backstory is eye-opening.”
Eye-opening, indeed. A small nonprofit that sought to make movies criticizing politicians runs headlong into a law that was partially intended to silence speech critical of politicians and candidates. As Senator John Edwards (D-NC) said during the floor debates over the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act: “[people] turn on their televisions in the last 2 months before an election and see mostly hateful, negative, personal attack ads posing as issue ads… . Those are the ads we are trying to stop.”
Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT) complained that he “had to face seeing ads on television which totally distort the facts and say terrible things. You watch a 20-percent lead keep going down[.]”
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) thought that the ads “are negative to the degree where all of our approval ratings sink to an all time low,” and that the ads “simply drive up an individual candidate’s negative polling numbers.” Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) grumbled that the ads “[do] not help our image.”
These quotes demonstrate that censoring critical and “negative” political speech is often a proximate goal of campaign finance “reformers.” They also show that giving elected representatives the power to censor campaign speech will unleash self-serving and grotesque motivations to protect “20-percent lead[s].”
When it comes to letting representatives alter the process by which they get elected, we should heed the words of Nobel laureate James Buchanan: “Don’t let the fox guard the chicken coup.”