Shays-Meehan free speech restrictions debated

Posted 5:31 p.m. April 3

by Shaphan Marwah
U-WIRE (DC BUREAU)

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON- Soon after President George W. Bush signed the Shays-Meehan campaign finance legislation into law last week, Republicans criticized it as an unconstitutional limit on free speech-a charge Bush has indicated he at least partially agrees with.

The debate centers on a portion of the bill that prohibits unions and corporations from broadcasting political ads during a certain period of time before federal elections.

Among the first to file complaints were the National Rifle Association and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), citing free speech violations.

“I filed suit to defend the First Amendment right of all Americans,” McConnell said in a recent press release. “The government is telling people how, when and how much speech they are allowed.”

Proponents of the law argue that the reforms promote the First Amendment rather than violate it.

“The reform act encourages renewed citizen confidence and participation,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said in a press release, “thereby strengthening First Amendment values.”

“It restricts fund raising, not speech,” said Seth Amgott, communications director for Common Cause, a lobbying organization based in Washington, D.C. “The opposition’s claim is a guise for arguing that money is equal to speech.”

Teams of renowned lawyers have been assembled on both sides of the case that some political analysts claim will prove to be a landmark.

The counsel for the plaintiffs includes such luminaries as Kenneth Star, lead prosecutor in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, and Floyd Abrams, known for his work on the 1971 Pentagon Papers case.

Attorneys supporting the campaign reform law include Seth Waxman, former U.S. solicitor general, and Burt Neuborne, former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to First Amendment expert Professor Ira C. Lupu of The George Washington University, “(the bill’s supporters’) reasoning is the concern that large concentrations of wealth in anyone’s hands will be able to distort and influence the outcomes of elections.”

Under the current law, unions and corporations will still be allowed to participate in campaigns through other methods, such as print and radio media.

“The law will give less influence to corporations and unions,” Lupu said. “However, the costs on the system of free expression are not justified by the benefits the law will achieve.”

Lupu pointed out a legal difference between contribution to political parties and private endeavors: “Congress can reduce political contributions, but not private expenditures.”

Bush indicated that the bill could face legal snags in the future.

“I believe that this legislation will improve the current financing system,” Bush explained during a recent press conference. “I also have reservations about the constitutionality of the broad ban on issue advertising.”

The law will come into effect on November 6, immediately after the 2002 federal elections, pending the results of the legal proceedings.

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