My sidewalk survey

Good news: I lost only $2; bad news: America is losing much more

Issue: "Money to burn," April 15, 2000

I'm just back from the Asheville Mall, the biggest shopping center in my hometown-and I bring back bad news. Folks there have lost their sense of values; they no longer know a bargain when they see one.

I did my own little poll, you see, stopping the first 10 people who came down the big atrium to ask them a simple question: "Can you tell me something about the Bill of Rights? Can you identify one of the rights included in that document?" Only three people out of 10 could mention a single one of the great liberties guaranteed by those grand articles.

Alarmed, I went on with 10 more people. "Can you tell me something about the First Amendment? I'll give you a dollar"-and I held out a crisp dollar bill-"if you can tell me one thing it says." Sadly, the experiment cost me only $2.

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So set aside all your other worries. The big issue right now is not partial-birth abortion, or campaign finance, or homosexual marriage, or fairness in education. Really, only one thing in the year 2000 is worth being concerned about on the public-policy front-and it's big enough, all by itself, to eclipse every other problem.

Wonder of wonders: It's also a traditionally liberal cause. But it's one many liberals seem more and more ready to trade in for the rest of their agenda.

I'm talking about First Amendment freedoms-and especially about freedom of speech. It's such a cornerstone of the traditional system of American liberties that we tend to think of it as indestructible. Yet even while we bask in what could be the sunset of that freedom, some folks are hard at work chipping away big pieces of the old rock.

No, this isn't just a worrywart's interpretation of things. Even the liberals who propose such changes admit explicitly and up front that they want to put new restraints on the Bill of Rights. Within the last couple of weeks, for example, Congress actually voted on a proposal to give to itself "power to set reasonable limits on the amount of contributions that may be accepted, and the amount of expenditures that may be made by, in support of, or in opposition to, a candidate for nomination for election to, or for election to, federal office." The measure lost, but a third of the senators who once had taken an oath to defend the Constitution voted two weeks ago to chisel away at one of its most foundational articles.

Some of the backers of that profound amendment acknowledged openly their awareness that without such a restriction on the First Amendment, any other laws they might pass limiting campaign spending would be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. So instead of finding another solution for the corrupting influence of money in politics, they'll settle for what dictators always tend to do: Take away the people's freedom.

WORLD took a lot of heat for saying so in our Feb. 19 issue, but such also would have been the effect of Sen. John McCain's proposal for campaign-finance reform. Our critics didn't like the bluntness of the inference we drew with this statement: "Mr. McCain would essentially suspend the First Amendment for 60 days prior to any federal election." But nobody argued with our evidence for that inference in the very next sentence: "He would make it illegal for nonprofit groups-from the National Rifle Association to the National Right-to-Life Committee-to advertise against a candidate, publish 'report cards' on votes, or even mention a candidate's name in a way that might 'materially benefit' his opponent."

Like the pedestrians at the mall, the media, educational, and political elite have been so distracted by other issues that they have forgotten what the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights are all about. Willy-nilly, they start proposing remedies whose poison is much more potent than the evils they are out to correct.

We shouldn't be surprised. For if anything has come to characterize freedom in our age, it is the spirit that says: "You can say anything you want, of course-just so long as you don't offend our sense of what is appropriate to be said." So campus newspapers, governmental regulatory agencies, the TV networks, educational accrediting associations, textbook editors, and all sorts of other power brokers start telling the public what they can and cannot say. When that becomes the national habit, it's not at all hard for Congress to fall in line and decide that it too can place limits it deems appropriate on public discourse.

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