Daily Dispatches
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks to reporters.
Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks to reporters.

Amending the Constitution to restrict freedom?

Free Speech

If a proposed constitutional amendment becomes law, groups like the National Right to Life Commission (NRLC) could lose their First Amendment protections when it comes to saying and doing things that might influence elections. If pro-life groups could no longer do things like supply voting scorecards to the public, pro-life leaders fear their organizations would cease to function.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., introduced legislation June 18 that would give the government virtually unlimited control over campaign spending. His bill currently has 43 Democrat and Independent co-sponsors, while its House companion has 36 Democrat co-sponsors.

According to the most recent version of Reid’s bill, officials could make laws restricting any fundraising that would “influence elections.” Reid said he means for the bill to target billionaires like brothers David and Charles Koch, who fund GOP politicians. “Let’s put an end to the cult of dark money, and in this instance, the hidden dark money which is corrupting our elections,” Reid said on the Senate floor June 18.

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But civil liberties groups across the spectrum are arguing against the bill’s vague wording. They warn giving the government a blank check to regulate campaign funding could be used to target certain political groups and violate the First Amendment.

“Anything that costs money, which of course means everything, … could influence elections,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for NRLC, America’s oldest pro-life group. “Organizations such as ours could be completely gagged.”

If Congress added the proposed amendment to the Constitution, Johnson said, the federal government could create laws greatly limiting political groups’ speech. For instance, certain organizations could not speak about any candidates up to 60 days before an election.

Johnson said the legislation would devastate the NRLC’s strategy. While it could say abortion is bad, the pro-life group could not argue against any particular law and could not make a scorecard listing which legislators vote against abortion. Both would interfere with election results. And because the resolution would be an amendment, federal courts could not rule resulting federal and state laws unconstitutional.

Officeholders, Johnson said, would ultimately determine which groups could say what about which candidates: “The more contentious the issue, the more likely it is that someone is going to want to say that your party view should be disallowed, that it’s hate speech.”

William Estrada, director of federal relations for the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), said he could only guess at what kind of regulations federal officials would invent should Reid’s resolution become law. Since HSLDA normally updates its members on legislators’ homeschooling positions and proposed legislation, the amendment would force HSLDA to analyze its writing for anything that could be construed to support a certain candidate.

“It would force organizations like ours to scrub our webpages,” Estrada said.

Conservative groups aren’t the only ones alarmed by the legislation. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote bill sponsors an eight-page letter outlining the resolution’s faults. In the letter, the ACLU wrote that other than Prohibition, this would become the first amendment “to limit rights and freedoms.”

The ACLU and NRLC also argued the bill’s nod to protect freedom of the press in regard to campaign coverage actually restricts freedom: It would give the government a license to determine which groups belong to the press.

To become a constitutional amendment, the resolution must pass the House, the Senate, and three-fourths of state legislatures—making it very unlikely that the bill will become law. Both HSLDA and NRLC are using their currently unrestricted First Amendment rights to publish lists of all lawmakers who support the bill.

Johnson said even if the bill doesn’t pass, it highlights a larger problem—the lengths some lawmakers will go to suppress political dissent: “It’s an attempt to legitimize the whole notion of restricting communications about those who hold or seek political office.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to hold a hearing about the resolution in early July.

Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette
Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette

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