Time to Speak Out for Free Speech

The following article originally was published on October 27, 2008, in Grand Junction’s Free Press. Links have been added here. See also “Eric Daniels Defends Free Speech.”

Time to speak out for free speech

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

Free speech is under assault in America by state and federal governments, despite constitutional protections.

Both major presidential candidates are enemies of free speech. In 2002, John McCain rode the McCain-Feingold campaign censorship law through Congress. Among other things, the law prohibited select groups from running certain political ads before elections, though the Supreme Court struck down some of the worst parts of the law. Barack Obama wants federal controls on media ownership, his spokesperson told Broadcasting & Cable.

Some conservatives want more censorship over pornography. Many on the left call for censorship of the radio by forcing broadcasters to air certain views; supporters laughably call their scheme the “Fairness Doctrine.”

Here in Colorado, various activists have faced legal threats for daring to exercise their rights of free speech. For example, in 2006 Becky Clark Cornwell put up yard signs and protested a plan to annex her community of Parker North into the city of Parker in Douglas County.

A supporter of annexation filed a legal complaint against Cornwell and others, claiming they had engaged in “illegal activities” under Colorado’s campaign censorship laws.

Lisa Knepper of the Institute for Justice (IJ), a civil rights group that defended Cornwell and her neighbors, said that, while the U.S. District Court ruled the group could not be penalized, the court “failed to change the law to prevent such abuses of campaign finance law in the future, so we’re appealing to the 10th Circuit.”

ABC’s 20/20 featured Cornwell in an October 17 story about the campaign finance laws. Cornwell said “the lawsuit was used in an effort to shut us up about the annexation, to scare us enough and clobber us with these laws so that we wouldn’t talk about it any more.”

20/20 paid people to try to fill out Colorado’s campaign forms. Nobody did so successfully. One subject said, “A regular citizen cannot read this legalese.” Another said, “I’d rather just not get involved in the political process if I have to go through the nonsense that I had to go through today.”

Steve Simpson, the IJ lawyer defending the Parker North residents, said he’s also defending the Independence Institute, which was sued over its criticisms of Referenda C and D in 2005. Simpson is awaiting a decision from the Colorado Court of Appeals. He said “it would be impossible” for the Independence Institute, a think tank, to comply with the reporting requirements as an issue committee, because the group gets funds for general purposes and spends them on a wide variety of issues.

Even though we’ve condemned Amendment 48, which would absurdly define a fertilized egg as a person in the state constitution, we were displeased to see that a fellow named John Erhardt sued the Amendment 48 campaign for petty violations of the campaign censorship laws. Erhardt gloats on his blog, “So, while the fine of $150 won’t break their campaign, they did have to spin their wheels to defend this.”

Diana Hsieh, co-author of the paper “Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life” at SecularGovernment.us, said the advocates of 48 “should be free to advocate their views — not bogged down in opportunistic legal action by opponents… I want opponents of Amendment 48 to be spending their time arguing against the substance and philosophy of it, not playing campaign finance dirty tricks.”

Finally, Douglas Bruce has taken flak in the media [one and two] for mailing a flyer against Amendment 59 and Referendum O through a nonprofit group, Active Citizens Together, without filing the legal paperwork that some think applies.

It’s past time to rethink the validity of the campaign censorship laws, along with all the other restrictions on free speech. We checked in with Eric Daniels of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, and he offered a refreshingly consistent defense of our rights.

Daniels said, “Free speech means the right (not privilege) of individuals to express their opinions without government censorship of any kind, whether by hindering speech through regulation or through restricting it through prosecutions after the fact.”

We don’t even like requirements to report contributions. People have a right to speak anonymously. There’s no clear way to distinguish between advocacy and education. And, the voters can demand disclosure with their votes.

Daniels agrees: “If politicians wish to disclose the source of their financing to the public, they are free to do so… The electorate can indeed decide through voting whether to support candidates who do or do not disclose their financing. Contributing money to a political candidate or to supporters or opponents of a ballot measure should properly be a matter between the private parties themselves.”

Government should not abridge “the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Politicians have gotten away with doing just that for far too long. If we wish to retain and restore our other liberties, we must above all fight for our rights of free speech.