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The fifth annual Muzzle Awards (continued)


Marty MeehanCampaign-finance reform punishes free speech

The past year has been a good one for Congressman Marty Meehan. First, the Lowell Democrat survived an attempt by Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran to redistrict him into oblivion. Then, a cause he had championed for years ó campaign-finance reform ó finally became law. At long last, the barely regulated soft-money contributions through which special interests wield so much clout will become a thing of the past.

But even as Meehan takes a bow, he also deserves criticism for a grossly unconstitutional provision of the new law. Incredibly, corporations and unions are now prohibited from buying airtime to broadcast television commercials that name a candidate 60 days before a general election and 30 days before a primary. And by "corporation," the law does not just mean Microsoft or General Electric ó it also applies to nonprofit advocacy groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the National Right to Life Committee (the latter is a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit to overturn the provision). As several critics have pointed out, the law is so pernicious that it would actually be a crime to buy a TV commercial criticizing Meehanís role in drafting it if the commercial were to run within one of the forbidden time periods.

Itís not that Meehan did anything uniquely wrong. The provision to ban "phony-issue ads," as they are invariably called, was widely supported. Indeed, the Senate version of the ban was pushed hardest by two New England senators, Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and Vermont independent Jim Jeffords. Meehanís co-sponsor was Congressman Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican. But except for Senate sponsors John McCain and Russ Feingold, no one worked more diligently or logged more TV face time than Meehan.

Thanks to loopholes, the actual effect of the issue-ad ban may not be as sweeping as intended. The ban does not apply to unincorporated individuals or groups. And according to Slateís Mickey Kaus, even corporations and unions may find it relatively painless to set up unincorporated branches to solicit donations and broadcast as many "phony-issue ads" as they like.

But the intent of the law is to chill free expression. If corporations and unions find a way to get their message out, it will be due only to the ineptitude of the speech commissars on Capitol Hill. Writing in the National Journal last September, the respected legal analyst Stuart Taylor called the provision "a frontal attack on the rights of ordinary citizens to band together to express their views on legislative and political issues," adding: "A greater affront to the First Amendmentís core purpose of protecting uninhibited, robust and wide-open criticism of government and government officials could scarcely be imagined."

First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who is assisting Republican senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in his efforts to overturn the law, wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal in March in which he asked disgustedly: "[H]ow can criminalization of speech about public affairs possibly be justified?"

Actually, the justification is logical enough. If you limit politiciansí ability to raise money and purchase airtime, then, as an unintended consequence, youíve given greater opportunity to outside groups to broadcast commercials that say, Call Senator X today and tell him to stop torturing puppies. But Marty Meehanís solution ó to take away the free-speech rights of those outside groups ó does not pass constitutional muster. It will be overturned ó eventually. And Meehan surely knows that.

In the meantime, Meehan ought to consider the psychic cost of limiting political speech ó even in the form of "phony-issue ads" ó in an open society.

Angus KingMaine governor bars public from security conference

According to Maine governor Angus King, homeland security is very, very important ó so important, in fact, that mere citizens have no right to know how their government intends to protect them.

That was the message, at least, of an unusual invitation that King sent out in late April. He asked 70 to 80 Mainers to attend a four-day conference to "develop the blueprint to secure Maine and its citizens from the threat of terrorist attack." He added: "I cannot overly stress the importance of this undertaking." But only a handful of reporters got the nod, and they were told they would be allowed to cover only a few sessions. Only two legislative leaders were invited. Even worse, King and other officials made it clear that they didnít want any members of the public to show up.

According to a report by Maineís Capital News Service, conference organizer Colonel Mark Gilbert of the Maine National Guard justified the silent treatment by saying, "We did not want the participants to feel encumbered in making their inputs. Letís be honest, that would happen if the media were there." Obviously Governor King was on board with that sentiment, since it was he who issued the invitations.

Kingís closed-door policy came under immediate attack. House majority leader Patrick Colwell, a Gardiner Democrat who did not get an invitation, told Capital News Service, "I have to say I have some concerns about this. There might be some areas of security that should not be discussed in public, but I think we are talking about developing broad public policy here, and that should involve the public."

The Maine Freedom of Information Coalition protested, with coalition member and Maine Public Radio announcer Irwin Gratz telling the Portland Press Herald, "Itís patently ridiculous. Itís a dangerous precedent when youíre making public policy behind closed doors."

An editorial in the Lewiston Sun Journal observed, "Anyone who holds democracy dear should be outraged by governmentís obvious lack of confidence in the peopleís ability to participate in thoughtful discussion about our own security." And it asked a pertinent question: "What are they thinking?"

The answer, apparently, is that King, Gilbert, et al. werenít thinking at all. Because within a few days they backed down ó to a point. The entire four-day conference was opened to all accredited members of the media, although the public was still barred. Major General Joseph Tinkham II, the stateís adjutant general, was trotted out to announce the change of heart and to blame it all on the gosh-darn difficulties of holding such a conference at the National Guard base in Bangor.

"The only reason we were closing it to the press was because of logistics," Tinkham reportedly said. "The media is welcome to cover the conference. We just have to put some mechanics in place to escort them onto the base." Those logistics, he added, made it impossible to allow the public to attend.

Well, isnít that convenient. Meanwhile, hereís some advice for Governor King: next time, hold the conference at a place where everyone will be welcome.

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Issue Date: July 4 - 11, 2002
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