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.)


  1. Sandra Price

    Interesting commentary from Mr. Ambrose but he overlooked a politocal movement that has been forgotten since Perot got 12 million votes in 1992. Perot simply brought to the table programs that would work and he explained how they would work. He did not run against either Bush 41 or Clinton. He ran on a positive agenda and sadly his personality got in his way.

    The Republicans and Democrats came after him with a vengeance.

    But today we have a very broken government under two very broken political parties. No matter which way we go, we are tainted with past actions smelling to high heaven.

    If we want a political party that destroys our Corporations, we will destroy our enocomy and stock market. Corporations are buying our congressmen but it is the congress who is breaking the law.

    We have oversight groups up the kazoo and nothing is changed. Everyone in America knows about corporate welfare that leads them to finance their own congresscritters.

    Every illegal and immoral action from our government was approved by the voters who put them there. Trying to start a third, fourth or fifth party will never work because the voters are content with the crap they put in office.

    What caught my attention with Perot was his factual statements of changes he would make if elected. He was the first to point out our terrible trade deficit (which has never been addressed or fixed) He was concerned about open borders and that has never been fixed.

    It is my greatest hope to get this CHB site and their RR forum to get into debates of what we want changed in D.C. I have visions of opening radio debate with call ins as I have seen work at Downsize.DC. Their site streams directly to the radio station and when someone has a question or statement one only has to call in.

    With the kind of membership and readers we have here I have confidence that we can take one issue at a time and even one candidate at a time and be heard.

    We don’t need a political party to discuss issues. There isn’t a figs difference anyway. But we need to tackle those issues that divide America so drastically.

    Only we can stop the corruption and the terrible debt that Bush pushed us into. Only we can push the concept of choices over government laws. Only we can push the asset of a strong Sovereign America.

  2. bryan mcclellan

    Imagine is the name of the game. Our nation started as a dream and flourished because people held on and refused to give in to the all powerful. We just have to pick a new spot on the wall to bash our heads into until we break through.Headaches and blood aside,ceding to the usurpers is not an option to true patriots’, and standing shoulder to shoulder with those who sacrificed to give We The People our rights is a duty not an option. Discourse such as yours keeps us all on our toes,and in a world where a new phone upstages the monumental sacrifices’ of our military your voice is sorely needed. Thank You and never say die…..BM

  3. www.nazilieskill.us

    The problem is the media. There will always be one wizard or another who is able to use it as a secret police. The media keeps our nose to their wall.

    So, invent your own. My car is covered with plastic lettering (You won’t get to keep it in a death camp anyway.). And I hold up signs at intersections that say: “Bush Ordered 911”, “Misery Makes Republicans Rich”, or “Media Conceals by Changing the Subject” etc.

    John Hanks, Laramie, Wyoming

  4. nuQler Ostrich

    Freedom of the Press belongs only to he who owns the press.

    Fortunately these days, almost everbody can afford to own a press. It’s called your computer printer.

    Print out your position and make hundreds of copies at Office Depot or wherever @ 5.c ea. And then leave them everywhere in your wake. Hint: KISS

    In the elevators, in the Dr.s waiting rooms, in shopping carts, on busses, in taxicabs, on condo bulletin boards. you get the idea. A poignant political cartoon tacked to a light pole at the bus stop. Viral activism. We can have our country back, but only if we want it bad enough.
    But we have to get people to believe that it’s possible.

    Right now it seems so impossible. Almost as impossible as 2 dozen men declaring Independence against King George III in 1776.