Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader, D-5th District, wants to fiddle with the First Amendment in order to keep rich people from supporting lots of candidates in federal elections. He should forget it. Once we start making exceptions to freedom of speech, other limits on liberty will be easier to impose.
Schrader brought this topic up in an email to residents of his district, which includes parts of Benton County. He’s upset over two Supreme Court rulings that struck down parts of federal election law. One was Citizens United, which threw out a ban on spending money to criticize a federal candidate within a certain period before an election. The other was the recent decision in the McCutcheon case, where the court struck down a limit on how many candidates someone could support with contributions.
Both cases were properly decided. It is a plain violation of the First Amendment to tell citizens they cannot circulate a movie critical of a candidate. (This was a movie against Hillary Clinton in 2008.) And if there is no threat of corruption in making limited contributions to one candidate, how can there be corruption in contributing limited amounts to two, three or even 100 candidates? (No corruption times one hundred is still zero corruption.)
Burt Schrader is alarmed. He says the rulings allow the voices of the majority of voters to be drowned out by a few rich people.
“This is beyond wrong – it’s dangerous,” he writes. “It threatens to transform our democracy into a system where only the wealthy have a say and citizens of more modest means are left by the wayside. It makes public officials less accountable to their constituents and more beholden to special interests. This is not what our Founding Fathers intended.”
Well, one thing the Founders did intend was to protect liberty from the clutches of government officials. That’s why they wrote and got the original states to adopt the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights. We can be fairly sure that the Founders would have been skeptical of a Federal Election Commission that could punish citizens for being overly active in politics.
Schrader, unconvinced, says he proposed a change to the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech rights. The text is not available online, and he didn’t provide it. But he says: “My amendment would add a new clause to the Constitution affirming money’s potentially corrupting influence in our democracy and that it is therefore proper for Congress to pass legislation to limit the excessive use of money to buy elections.”
This sounds like a dangerous plan. Members of Congress would likely soon consider “excessive” and therefore unlawful any amount of money spent in an attempt to throw them out of office.
It’s also dangerous because any newly legislated limit on free speech would invite others. Far more potentially destructive to a decent society than money, for example, is popular entertainment. So it would be tempting for Congress to impose some form of censorship.
There is no apparent danger that Schrader’s proposed amendment will go anywhere. And that’s a good thing. But his proposing it reminds us that liberty, in campaigns and otherwise, always faces potential threats from the political class. (hh)