How a bullhorn interferes with speech

The 1996 Senatorial race between Sam Brownback and Jill Docking has been called the "poster child for advocates of change" in the way we finance our political campaigns (James Kuhnhenn in the Kansas City Star, 9/27/97). The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill was put forth as a reasonable, bipartisan first step to fixing what is definitely broke. Initially, Brownback supported the idea -- in fact, co-sponsored this very bill.

But first Brownback jerked his co-sponsorship of McCain-Feingold. Then he helped filibuster it. Then he and his now-insider cohort stomped it into the dust. The result: more and worse of the same to come.

Norman Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute: "I could imagine a scenario in the next presidential election in which we will look back fondly on the experience of 1996."

What was Sam's rationale for turning against McCain-Feingold? That it would interfere with free speech. "It would be like telling newspapers: 'OK, 60 days before the election you can't run an editorial about a candidate.'"

We need to take a closer look at that assertion, because a lot of people think it's money, at least as much as government, that interferes with speech. How? By pre-empting the very forum where ideas are expressed.

But how could one party's pursuit of louder, freer, more plentiful speech interfere with someone else's?

Easy, if you have enough money. First, get beyond Sam's erroneous comparison of nebulously-spopnsored "issue ads" with newspaper editorials. It's easy to find out whose money is talking in an editorial. Let's keep our eye on campaign ads and leave editorials for another day.

It's interesting that Sam chose newspaper editorials to illustrate his point, instead of radio and TV ads, which are far better examples of corporate influence upon elections. Why did he do this?

Partly to deflect the discussion toward a less threatening medium. Politicians like Brownback understand full well how broadcast ads compare with newspaper editorials for effectiveness in swaying the popular vote.

But Brownback also wanted to distract us from a more important distinction between these media. Newspapers and broadcasters are regulated differently, and for good reason. If a newspaper runs out of space, it can simply add a sheet of paper and voila -- more space. But "air time" on a given frequency is a public-owned resource limited to 24 hours a day, so the FCC governs the airwaves in the "public trust." It keeps order among stations and frequencies, preventing their interference with each other. During elections, the agency keeps one point of view from dominating the debate unfairly, as was known to happen in the old days of an unregulated broadcast industry.

Government restrictions of newspaper editorial policy is another chilling thought, but it's not what we're talking about. By nature, broadcast media are different. FCC restrictions do not interfere with free speech, but rather are necessary to protect it.

This finite nature of the airwaves comes into play in an interesting way in political advertising. If I'm running for office, and my opponent has just bought 24 hours of each broadcast facility's time from now till election day, how do I get my voice heard?

I don't. But my opponent doesn't have to do even that to silence me. Suppose the broadcast facility has a policy of not running one candidate's ads within 5 minutes of his opponent's? Then my opponent only needs to buy a 5-second spot every 10 minutes to shut me out completely.

It's a little like the bullhorn that Regina Dinwiddie, the Kansas City anti-abortion activist, used to amplify her voice as she accosted women visiting an obstetrical clinic. A very wise judge said she was free to keep accosting the women, but without physical threats and without the bullhorn. Taking away her bullhorn didn't restrict her speech, it just kept it down to a human level. If she wanted to gather a group of like-minded people together to shout a rehearsed chant, that was okay, too. But she had to leave the bullhorn at home.

Money, in excessive quantities, becomes a bullhorn. McCain-Feingold was asking only that corporations -- and unions, too, for that matter -- leave the bullhorn at home.

But that's Sam's bullhorn. He uses it to drown out reasonable debate from his opponents. He needs the bullhorn of unregulated money to make his the only voice heard. That's why now that he's a senator, he's not interested in campaign finance reform anymore. He's interested in unlimited "free speech" -- if you have the money. And he does, and so do his in-laws, the Stauffers.

Source: the Kansas City Star, "Kansas election reflects reasons for funds debate / Senate reviews tactics that touched Brownback-Docking race," James Kuhnhenn, 09/27/97
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