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The Last Days of the First Amendment
by Jonathan David Morris
06 January 2004Constitution

McCain-Feingold limits the freedom of speech. There's no better way to explain it.


I laugh sometimes when I hear Republicans and Democrats fighting over appointments to the Supreme Court. Both parties rally their bases by pledging to appoint judges who'll fight for their pet issues. Both promise to oppose judges who'll fight for the opposite side. The reason I laugh is because I'm not sure it matters anymore. No matter who wins, we all get screwed.

Case in point: The Court's recent decision to uphold the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law.

What McCain-Feingold does, exactly, is it limits the freedom of speech. There's no better way to explain it. Beyond its restriction on soft money, it prohibits the airing of issue ads -- such as those sponsored by the ACLU or NRA -- in the weeks before an election. So in other words, after hearing politicians tell us "the American people aren't stupid" all these years, it turns out we are. Indeed, having watched us fall victim to cigarette-smoking cartoon characters and Super Value meals, Washington has finally decided it's best if they simply protect us from the dissemination of ideas.

This is where the "we all get screwed" part comes in: McCain-Feingold is hailed as a "bipartisan accomplishment," something that couldn't've happened if Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Russ Feingold weren't "willing to work together." To this, I say big deal. We've come to a point in this country where bipartisanship is seen as some grand, noble thing. It's nothing of the sort. To suggest America's better off when Republicans and Democrats work together ignores the fact that we're better off when they don't. We're not talking about kids in a sandbox here. So what if they're playing nicely together? They're playing with our rights and our money.

And it's the lack of loyal opposition that comes with bipartisanship that's leading our country to a "two"-party tyranny.

This latest transgression -- cleverly labeled "reform" -- is just the sort of law the First Amendment talked about when it talked about Congress passing "no law" "abridging the freedom of speech." Maybe what the Founders meant to say was, "Congress shall make no law abridging convenient speech -- but as for inconvenient speech, sure, Congress can make those laws." Let's thank the good senators, McCain and Feingold, for providing us with a new interpretation.

Mind you, the old chums aren't wrong for suggesting the system is broken. It is. But their idea of fixing it is born of the same spirit which broke it in the first place. Joseph Lieberman says we need these reforms to "stop the corrosive influence of big money on our political system," but what he and McCain and Feingold fail to realize is the problem isn't corruption. It's Big Gov't. Adding another layer -- another law -- to an already heaping mess isn't going to fix a damned thing. The only real solution is to peel a few layers away instead.

So why not do that, then? Why not reduce the size and scope of government, so as to reduce the amount of influence soft money and issue ads can buy? Because governments don't shrink. They grow. They toss new rules atop old rules, and new regulations atop old regulations, creating a dozen problems for every one they promise to solve.

And in an era of instant gratification, we fall for their quick fixes every time.

I wrote recently that politicians "use bogeymen to prove that we... need protection" and "to prove that we need them to tinker with our lives." McCain-Feingold represents the ultimate case of this phenomenon. Here we see politicians punishing their own bad behavior with a slap on the wrists of 280 million law-abiding, tax-paying, First Amendment-respecting Americans.

Our government not only sponsors political campaigns through matching funds but also now limits how we can criticize those campaigns prior to elections. What we're seeing -- thanks to "bipartisan" efforts by Congress and their rubber-stamp Supreme Court -- is a total erosion of the checks-and-balances system. McCain-Feingold consolidates the right of free speech in the hands of the few and the privileged -- the politicians, judges, and bureaucrats becoming less accountable to the people every day.

The Supreme Court is nearly invincible now, as is Congress, the office of the presidency, and every other position down the line. It's been incremental -- even slow in coming -- but the complete centralization of authority is well underway. Oh, sure, you can make the case that we're safe as long as we have free and open elections. But what difference does that make when the two major parties are working against us in cahoots?

America's not perfect, but for most of us it's a nice place to live. Indeed, if I can write the things I've written here, it can't be all bad -- and the First Amendment can't be entirely dead. But it's getting there. Fast. Our liberties are under attack from a variety of angles, from exorbitant taxes and Patriot Act powers to the First Amendment infringements of McCain-Feingold and Congress's self-exemption from anti-spam laws. Our leaders claim to be protecting us; for all we know, their will -- if not their way -- is good. Totalitarianism need not be intentional, though. Things happen. The best way to prevent abuses of power is to not have power to abuse. But as our First and Second Amendments wither, so, too, do constitutional safeguards ensuring self-rule.

The Bill of Rights is being slaughtered. The silence of the lambs remains deafening. Speak now, America, or forever hold your...

Jonathan David Morris is a political satirist based in New Jersey. His website is Read JDM
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