Huckabee: First Amendment ups and downs

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

One in a series of articles on the First Amendment record and views of
2008 presidential candidates.

Former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has experienced an up-and-down campaign. Rising from the bottom of the polls to win the Iowa caucus in January, Huckabee has yet to earn another win despite primaries in four other states. Huckabee’s First Amendment record also has experienced highs and lows.

Before his political career, which includes a failed campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1992 and a stint as Arkansas lieutenant governor from 1993 to 1996, Huckabee was a Baptist preacher and the president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

As governor from 1996-2007, Huckabee tended to mix religion and politics. In one of his TV commercials during the holiday season, Huckabee told viewers “my faith doesn’t just influence me — it defines me.” While stumping in Michigan earlier this month, he said the Constitution should be amended to fit within “God’s standards” because it would be easier to change the Constitution’s standards than God’s.

However, in public appearances and on his official Web site, Huckabee espouses confidence in his understanding of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. “It’s pretty simple,” he said at the Pew Forum on Religion and the Public Life in June 2007. “No laws ever get created where one religion gets preference over another. Congress never creates a law where someone's personal religious faith gets prohibited by the government.”

In 1994, while he was lieutenant governor of Arkansas, he proclaimed a statewide “Christian Heritage Week” and as governor in 2001, he declared October to be “Student Religious Liberty Month.” After the declaration, his office sent letters to all the public school districts in Arkansas reminding officials that students could legally pray in school individually or in groups.

Huckabee issued an executive order to ensure Arkansas' compliance with federal charitable choice law that allows faith-based organizations to compete for funds from state agencies. He also publicly supported Prison Fellowship Ministries, a Bible-based program that received state funds. A federal judge ruled in 2006 that state funding of the organization violated the establishment clause.

When he came under fire for a public holiday display that contained a Nativity scene in 1998, Gov. Huckabee said there was nothing wrong with spiritual themes in public displays, commenting that “Jesus Christ is the essence of Christmas.”

While governor, Huckabee often struggled with the press. In 2002, a Democratic political consultant sued Huckabee, claiming that the governor had forced the cancellation of his talk show on the Arkansas Educational Television Network. Roby Brock, the host, had publicly criticized Huckabee at a Young Democrats rally. A federal judge later ordered that his show be restored and in July 2003, the Huckabee administration settled with Brock for $15,000.

In April 2006, Huckabee’s office stopped providing press services, including press releases and invitations to press conferences, to the Arkansas Times, an alternative weekly with a history of criticizing the governor and his administration. His press spokesperson said the governor’s office no longer considered the 28-year-old weekly a news organization.

At the September 2007 Values Voters Debate in Florida, Huckabee said he supported extending broadcast-indecency rules to cable networks.

In 2005, Huckabee fired Arkansas’ chief information officer for criticizing an administrative computer system. The officer filed suit against Huckabee, claiming that he had a constitutional right to criticize government operations even though he was a high-ranking official. A federal judge ruled that Huckabee and his staff were immune from the lawsuit.

Huckabee also faced accusations of violating the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. As he left office in 2007, 91 government hard drives were destroyed. An ongoing lawsuit alleges those actions violated the state FOIA, though a judge ruled in December 2007 that Huckabee did not have to turn over backup tapes from the destroyed hard drives. Huckabee claims that the drives were destroyed to protect sensitive information, including constituents’ and employees’ Social Security numbers and credit card information.

However, Huckabee also fought to uphold the Arkansas FOIA a number of times. In August 2002, his office announced that it would not support an effort by the Arkansas Homeland Security Council to exempt some documents from FOIA requirements. In September 2002, Huckabee released funding applications for the Delta Regional Authority that had previously been considered exempt from FOIA. When the Arkansas Emergency Management Department suggested in May 2003 that certain security materials should be kept secret from the public, Huckabee publicly opposed the idea.

During his 11 years as governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee had a varied First Amendment record. Though he advocated a blurring of church-state separation and acted combative against the press at times, Huckabee upheld the state’s FOIA laws with relative consistency, except for the hard-drive incident.

Melanie Bengtson is a junior studying political and economic development at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

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