Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

How About Media Reform?

A couple weeks ago, I explained how a Democratic Legislature could begin to micromanage political speech to their advantage by passing a partisan version of campaign finance “reform.”  Today, the Wisconsin State Journal interviews all the usual suspects cheerleading for these new laws.

The article, which identifies some potential roadblocks to passing “reform,” includes quotes from five proponents of new laws regulating political speech (Sheridan, Erpenbach, Ellis, Heck and McCabe), and one quote from an opponent, attorney Mike Wittenwyler.  Wittenwyler’s quote mostly deals with the issue of taxpayer financing for campaigns, which is really more of an ancillary issue.  To his credit, Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker’s spokeswoman dodges the issue, saying they want to work on a bill that will “pick up support from Republicans.”  In Capitol-speak, that means they don’t really want to do anything, because they can pass whatever they want without a single damn Republican – they just want to be able to blame the GOP when nothing passes.

But given the imbalance in quotes, you’d think hardly anyone opposes campaign finance “reform.”  This isn’t a surprise, given the cheerleading newspapers all over the state constantly do in an effort to shut down political speech during election time.  If groups can’t spend money to disseminate their speech, then newspapers think they will become more relevant.

Of course newspapers, who should be the staunchest defenders of free speech, are all for shutting down speech that isn’t theirs.  Imagine the Legislature passing a bill saying the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel or the Wisconsin State Journal had to report the names of all their subscribers and sources of income to the state before they could write a political editorial or endorse a candidate.  Think they’d approve of that restriction on their free speech rights?

Of course not.  But that is exactly what they argue should be imposed on any group that doesn’t happen to be a newspaper.  Unless you have been blessed by the all-knowing editorial boards of this state, they argue you shouldn’t have the First Amendment right to criticize your government.  Instead, you’d be silenced unless you run through a mountain of red tape, reviewed by the very government you’d be trying to criticize, and subjected to the same retribution by those government officials.  There’s a reason we vote anonymously – and that anonymity should apply to political speech.

In case after case, courts have rejected the government’s attempts to micromanage the political speech of its citizens.  Most of these cases stem from the federal McCain-Feingold law, which purported to eliminate money from the political system.  In fact, it has done nothing but drive it down into these 527 groups, where it is harder to trace.  And large portions of the law have been struck down by the courts as undue restrictions on political speech.  There are terrorists who have a better won/loss record in the U.S. Supreme Court than senators Russ Feingold and John McCain.

Yet, given reporting on the issue, you’d never know how often these laws are struck down by the courts.  This article only makes mention that if a law were enacted, then those “shady” groups would file a lawsuit.  But then again, you can file a lawsuit against your coworker for having excessive nose hair – it doesn’t mention that those lawsuits actually have a solid track record of succeeding.

Just once, it would be interesting to see a newspaper report on the issue of campaign finance reform without treating it as if it were some necessary “reform.”  Imagine a story in the State Journal with a headline “Democrats Push for Campaign Speech Restrictions,” which, incidentally, is an entirely fair way of portraying the issue.  Don’t hold your breath.

1 Comment

  1. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s leave the current system in place for all of the politicians who want take gobs of cash from special interests, and provide an optional system for those who don’t want to be obligated to the fat cats. Then let the voters decide who they like the most!!!

    Wow, what a concept. “Optional” so it passes constitutional muster, and provide the “public” candidate sufficient funding to run a credible campaign. That will create more speech and debate, not less.

    And oh, if the private candidate overspends, give the public candidate a 1-for-2 match so their speech is not drowned out.

    And let’s do what Arizona did: pay for it with a surcharge on criminal fines rather than taxpayer dollars!!!

    Surely this will not eliminate the stupid arguments that will be manufactured by conservatives, but will be fun watching them squirm out of a fair system.

    See WiCleanElections.org for more details.

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