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Was There Too Much Free Speech in Iowa?

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One of the standard tropes of reporting on the Republican presidential contest is that the race has been tarnished by the plethora of negative advertisements paid for by independent committees. For liberals, harping on this theme kills two birds with one stone, because it allows them to trash the GOP field while at the same time opening up a discussion about the evils of campaign finance and the need to further “reform” the use of money in politics. That was the theme of a recent New York Times editorial deploring the impact of “Super PACs” in Iowa. These groups were, the paper said, “septic tanks” financed by the wealthy which do the dirty work of unscrupulous candidates. The paper lamented that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision had, in effect, opened the floodgates to a tsunami of political slime.

But as Bradley Smith points out in a brilliant takedown of the Times and other critics of the court ruling in National Review, all such liberal complaints are a desire to limit the amount of political speech, especially when it is used by conservatives. The idea that citizens could actually speak out on issues and candidates without restrictions, a privilege that the Times would like to see reserved for the media, frightens liberals.

Smith, the former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, has been the single most important voice in the fight to roll back restrictions on political speech. He makes it clear that the latest bout of squeamishness about campaign rhetoric is absurd. Contrary to the liberal lament about the low level of contemporary political discourse, our politics today is less dirty than that of previous generations. Moreover, what exactly is their problem, with groups highlighting the candidates’ records on issues of interest to the public? Is democracy tarnished by too much information and too much speech? On the contrary, it is up to the voters in a democracy to sort out the charges and counter-charges made by the candidates and their friends.

Advocates of laws such as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance provisions that were struck down by the High Court claim their goal is to clean up politics, but their real objective is to restrict political speech. A situation where any group of citizens can band together and use their resources to broadcast political messages on issues and candidates is one that scares much of the political class as well as elements of the mainstream media. Like all of the post-Watergate election “reforms,” McCain-Feingold not only failed in their quixotic quest to get money out of politics but actually made things worse.

But the removal of those restrictions has had the opposite effect. More political speech is good for the system and our democracy. Such speech isn’t the sole preserve of the liberal media or corporate interests. And liberal groups can just as easily employ it as conservatives. We may not always like what is being said, but in a free country the last thing we ought to be concerned about is shutting up those with an opinion about politics. It is a sad commentary on contemporary liberalism that making it harder to speak out remains their priority.

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