- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2001

In a few weeks amidst the hurly burly of Washington politics, and with the better part of our people going about their busy lives and, in their resting moments watching "Sex in the City" or "South Park" or "The Sopranos" a defining moment in the history of our nation will be upon us.
Most of our citizens will not even notice this moment. Those that do will strain to hear through the media-filter words supporting the two sides of the debate. Few will sense that they will be living through a moment as filled with historic significance as the battle of Gettysburg or the attack on Pearl Harbor. It will be just another day in the busy life of a nation. Sen. John McCain's campaign-finance reform bill will be coming up for a vote.
But once upon a time in America such a vote would have aroused the passions not just of Washington politicians and editorial writers, but of that bedrock of our nation the common man. Perhaps the greatest illustration of the once vastly popular American artist, Norman Rockwell, depicts a rough-hewn man standing in a New England town hall meeting preparing to speak, with a cheaply printed political tract sticking out of his frayed coat pocket. The picture embodies the old American instinct to stand up and speak your piece, even in the face of a majority opinion to the contrary.
Today regretfully, with millions of dollars spent by powerful interests, the illustration seems quaintly irrelevant to what we understand to be the political process. And yet, it captures the founding conviction of our republic the freedom of speech. How are we to understand that freedom in the year 2001 anno domini?
Mr. McCain and Sen. Russell Feingold, in their currently pending campaign-finance legislation, believe that our First Amendment freedom of speech does not include the right of a political party a free association of citizens banded together for political activity to spend as much money as it can raise to express its beliefs regarding federal elections. Nor do they believe that within 60 days of a federal election certain groups of people (corporations and unions) may advertise on television and radio their views on the fitness of candidates for the offices to which they aspire. Others whom Messrs. McCain and Feingold would permit voice may do so only if in compliance with entangling federal regulations.
A particularly malicious provision of their bill would require even such groups as the NAACP or the National Rifle Association to publish the names and addresses of their contributors. Can you imagine the NAACP publishing such a list in the old South during the civil rights struggle? Or can you imagine unpopular groups publishing such a list in politically correct America today? To compel such public lists is to legislate a chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of speech.
And yet the Constitution states: "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech."
But Mr. McCain argues that these abridgements are necessary because money is corrupting our political process. Of course, he is right. Many groups contribute campaign dollars with the hope, and sometimes the reasonable expectation, of thereby influencing a legislator's vote.
But it has always been the argument of the freedom killers that if you give the people freedom, we will just abuse it. We would all be happier and safer with just a little less freedom. That was the argument of the pod people in the science fiction movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
Every freedom we have is regularly abused. The right to free association is abused every day by the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. But without that freedom, the Red Cross, unions, the Sierra Club and your local chamber of commerce could not exist. Freedom of religion is abused every day by harebrained cranks and grasping cults. But without that freedom, Jews, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists could not seek out their god in their own way. Just so, to protect our political freedom of speech, we must also grant it to those of unpure motives.
In a nation of 280 million with a government that deeply intrudes on our daily work and lives, freedom of speech to be meaningful must include the right to make our arguments to the nation not just to Norman Rockwell's town hall meetings that once governed our communities and our lives. It takes $5 million to 10 million a week to advertise at a national level.
Take away the dollars, and you take away our right to meaningful speech. Disempower the public's right to organize and speak during elections, and you further empower and entrench the existing political and media elite, which will never rock its own boat. Do you love the status quo that much?
Before we accept a further deadening of our instinct for freedom, we should remember the words of Lord Byron: "Yet, Freedom! Yet thy banner, torn, but flying, Streams like the thunderstorm against the wind."
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