Political Speech Not as Free as You Think

Campaign finance laws are necessary to keep really rich people from "buying" candidates and controlling our government, right? And any limitations on free speech that might be necessary are just collateral damage -- unfortunate but unavoidable, aren't they? At least that is the prevailing view of the reform community and probably the general public. However, these laws regulate and restrict political speech, political association, and the ability to lobby the government on important issues and have a reach way beyond what most of us realize.

Ordinary Americans justifiably think they can express their political opinions without concern over government regulations or intrusive investigations into their activity by a federal law enforcement agency. We do have the First Amendment, after all. But the overreach of these laws is illustrated by some cases pursued by the Federal Election Commission, which enforces the campaign laws. In the FEC, you have six commissioners and a staff of 350 career civil servants making decisions on fundamental constitutional rights, deciding what political speech and activity is allowed -- political speech and activity that is engaged in not just by candidates running for office, but also by citizens who have associated together to represent their interests and even by individual Americans.

For example, in 2000, FEC investigators descended on Muleshoe, Texas, a small farming town of just under 5,000 inhabitants west of Lubbock. They were looking into a complaint filed against local citizens who made the horrible mistake of putting up competing signs alternately supporting Al Gore or George Bush. This political rivalry started when Harvey Bass, the owner of the local furniture store, took an empty refrigerator box, painted "Save Our Nation, Vote Democrat, Al Gore for President" on the side, and placed the box on the porch of his store.

Two other local citizens, Bill Liles and Mark Morton, got tired of looking at this sign. With the help of some of their friends, they had a bigger sign painted that read, in part, "Vote for George W. Bush for President ... Not Al Gore Socialism." They hung it on a borrowed cotton trailer and parked it across the street so that Bass "would have to look at it every time he walked out the front door of his business."