A double standard on free speech

Suppose you’re a U.S. citizen concerned about some issue or the other –something happening to the environment, maybe, or perhaps a seeming injustice.

You’ve composed careful letters to members of Congress, showed up at political forums and written op-ed pieces for the local paper, and you seem to be making no progress whatsoever. You are one of 300 million in this country, and those numbers seem to sum up your influence: You are a minuscule fraction of the whole, an unheard, unheeded whisper in a mighty, roaring crowd.

Then you bump into an idea.

You will get in touch with dozens of people who think like you do. They may also be ordinary citizens with ordinary incomes and no particular clout in public affairs, but it occurs to you that the bunch of you can make a difference if all contribute some money, time and energy to this cause.

Though it takes awhile, you finally locate large numbers of kindred souls, you form an organization, you are incorporated, and eventually you are issuing press releases, providing speakers to various groups, getting representatives interviewed on television and buying newspaper space for ads, as well as time on TV and radio.

And you are in fact being heard. Even if there are other groups and big-time interests that take opposing views, you are part of the conversation. There’s a chance your position may eventually carry the day, or at least soften outcomes you don’t like.

You are proud that what you are doing is in the republic’s best traditions. It is precisely the kind of activity that keeps the government responsive to those outside it, translating high ideals of citizen involvement into something concrete, if sometimes displeasing to politicians.

When you first begin hearing about campaign-finance reform, it doesn’t occur to you that some of those politicians have you in their gun sights. To your amazement, you find that they do — that despite First Amendment guarantees, your group had been lumped in with others being told in a new law that their political speech is to be closely regulated. You discover that as elections draw close and the chance to have more impact than usual on officeholders grows, your group is henceforth forbidden from running any broadcast ads mentioning the name of a candidate for federal office.

Those affected include all kinds of advocacy groups speaking on all kinds of issues and all over the ideological spectrum. You figure these groups, including the ones you disagree with, have the right to discuss issues in broadcast ads anytime the group likes, whether they mention names or not, and you figure this legislation had everything to do with protecting incumbency and absolutely nothing to do with respecting your right to express your opinions.

A case works its way to the Supreme Court, which already has given an affirmative nod to the finance law in general, and a majority rules in favor of Wisconsin Right to Life. Using names, this advocacy group said in ads close to an election that the state’s U.S. senators should allow an up-or-down vote on a Supreme Court nominee put forth by President Bush. The court says that ad was OK, even though one of those senators was running for re-election, and that corporations and labor unions can discuss issues in ads and mention names close to election time as long as they do not engage in out-and-out electioneering.

Momentarily, you are relaxed, if not wholly satisfied, but become less than confident about the future after happening across strident criticisms of the decision by politicians, professors and a New York Times editorial.

The Times says that, despite “pious language” to the contrary, it is not a “victory” for free speech when “the voice of wealthy corporations” is magnified “over the voice” of “private citizens.”

This newspaper, you find yourself thinking, is itself a wealthy corporation answering to a publisher with strongly held political views, and the group you have started makes no profit and gives thousands a voice they would otherwise lack.

Sadly, you realize there are powerful, anti-democratic forces in America that won’t be satisfied until you are pretty much a cipher again, and you wonder if you and your friends have a chance in standing up against them.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com.)