By Jacob Huebert -
If you want to criticize a politician, should you have to check with your lawyer first or get the government’s permission? You wouldn’t think so – at least not in America, where we have a First Amendment that’s supposed to protect our right to free speech.
Unfortunately, laws enacted under the guise of “campaign finance reform” are forcing people to do just that.
In last Friday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal, former Federal Election Commission Chairman Bradley Smith wrote about an Ohio man, Ed Corsi, who was surprised to find himself accused of violating state election laws after he started a blog, passed out some pamphlets and held events about political issues.
His only “crime”? Failing to register with the state in advance, and then subsequently failing to file reports on what he was doing.
“Do I have to hire a lawyer to [do] these things?” Corsi asked the Ohio Elections Commission chairman at his hearing. “Yeah, I guess so,” the chairman responded. “I think it’s very complicated without going to those lengths.”
Campaign finance laws are supposedly enacted to address “big money” in politics by limiting what people can give to political campaigns and making everyone involved in the political process file public reports on their political giving, receiving and spending. But as Smith explains, these laws actually only hurt people who don’t have a lot of money:
“The ‘big money’ in politics can afford the accountants, consultants and lawyers needed to cope with campaign-finance law. The burdens frequently fall more heavily on grass-roots politics—the very thing we ought to be encouraging. There also is abundant anecdotal evidence that the main result, if not the purpose, of campaign-finance laws is to allow political insiders and government officials to harass grass-roots activists. The IRS targeting scandals are merely the most prominent example of the way these laws are used by those in power to harass their opposition.”
In other words, campaign finance restrictions are exactly what the First Amendment exists to prevent: laws that tilt the political playing field in government officials’ favor. And by reducing political outsiders’ ability to challenge entrenched officeholders, these laws actually tend to increase rather than decrease corruption.
Though Corsi suffered from an Ohio law, Illinois’ campaign-finance scheme is just as offensive to free speech and the First Amendment. That’s why the Liberty Justice Center has brought a lawsuit challenging it.
Jacob Huebert is Associate Counsel at the Liberty Justice Center