We need free speech, full disclosure

Wednesday, February 25, 1998

These remarks were excerpted from a speech delivered recently by former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander at the Cato Institute.

In 1974, in an understandable burst of indignation following Watergate, reformers limited the amount of money that could be contributed to federal candidates, and, in the case of presidential candidates, they limited the amount those candidates could spend. If the goal of these new regulations was to attract the largest number of good candidates, give them an opportunity to project their message and give us an opportunity to hear it, the Watergate reforms have proven to be a perfect disaster.

The limits have made fund raising so difficult that many good candidates opt out. The limits have caused campaigns to start ridiculously early so candidates have time to meet enough $1,000 contributors. They have made it less likely that voters will hear the candidates’ messages. They have given Washington insiders and the national media more say and outsiders less say. The limits protect incumbents and discourage insurgents, and are gradually filling up Congress with the super-rich who can afford to spend their own funds. In addition, they have squeezed the life out of campaigns as volunteers discover they have to check with a Washington agency before they can print a campaign slogan on a T-shirt.

The most troubling aspect of the so-called reform bills now being considered on Capitol Hill is that they weaken the First Amendment in the very area in which the Founders believed it was most needed. That is, protection of the right to freedom of political speech.

Current campaign finance “reform” proposals trample on this notion by expanding the definition of political speech that can be regulated by the federal government.

In the Buckley v. Valeo decision, in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is impossible to untangle the right to spend freely on political campaigns from the right to speak freely. It said that “the concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements of our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.”

Yet, restricting the free speech rights of some to enhance the rights of others is exactly what is being attempted today.

I have a better solution.

We should banish the phrase “campaign-finance reform” from out vocabulary. Its supporters won’t acknowledge it, but “campaign finance reform” is a euphemism for government regulation of political speech. And what our campaigns need is more freedom of speech, not less.

The 105th Congress should immediately table all of its so-called “campaign finance reform” bills and introduce in their place the “First Amendment Protection Act” … based on two simple but powerful concepts: free speech and full disclosure.

Replacing bogus “campaign-finance reform” with these two simple principles — free speech and full disclosure — will require an act of courage on the part of the Congress. It will require that they ignore the Washington echo chamber of so-called “good government” reformers and editorial page preachers and put their trust in the people to make informed political choices, even if the choices are disagreeable ones.

Freedom of speech is one of the handful of ideas that unites us as Americans; that brings new people to our shores and insures the constant renewal of our republic. A real danger that faces America as we prepare for the new century is that we will allow our differences to pull us apart while we neglect the compelling ideas that bring us together. One of the most important of these ideas is that each of us has the right to speak and march and fight in the defense of our liberty.