Jewish World Review Dec. 12, 2003 / 17 Kislev, 5764

Jonah Goldberg

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Court endorses wrong kind of censorship | I'm in favor of censorship. That makes me something of a pariah in American society. Fortunately, thanks to its endorsement this week of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, the Supreme Court is in favor of censorship, too. Unfortunately, the court favors the wrong kind of censorship.

Let me back-up for a second: We're all in favor of censorship. If you think it should be illegal for broadcast networks to program hardcore porn, you're in favor of censorship. If you don't think neo-Nazis should be allowed to make presentations at your kid's public school's career day, you are pro-censorship.

So the real issue isn't whether you are "for" or "against" censorship. The relevant question is, What do you want to censor? Or, how much censorship are you willing to tolerate?

Unfortunately, this country has become so contorted in its thinking about free speech, we've come to believe that censorship is merely the limitation of speech we like. If we think some words are bad, we simply call it "hate speech," and, well, who doesn't want to ban "hate"?

And, if we think some forms of speech do bad things, but we don't want to ban them outright, we simply regulate them.

But when it comes to free expression, "regulations" are just a clever way to champion censorship while dodging the word.

For example, if Congress said, "You cannot criticize the government," we'd all run to the parapets and scream bloody murder about censorship. But if Congress said instead, "There shall be no criticism of the government on days that end in "y." Well, that's not censorship that's just regulation! You're free to say whatever you want about the government, just so long as you don't say it on any of the seven days that happen to end in "y."

As you've no doubt heard, the Supreme Court has just upheld the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as McCain-Feingold. The BCRA severely restricts the abilities of groups to speak in ways that matter at moments that matter.

The details have been hashed out a zillion times. But the gist is: Groups like the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club, the ACLU and the NAACP will have a much more difficult time expressing their political views or criticizing politicians during an election season.

The intent is clearly censorious. John McCain has admitted, "If you cut off the soft money, you are going to see a lot less of (attack ads)." Marty Meehan, a major proponent of the law in the House, explained it was necessary to go after the ads airing right before the election, "because that's when people are paying attention."

Would it be any less censorship if we passed a law that said you cannot criticize the government before midnight or after 4:00 a.m.? That's what we used to do with "adult"-oriented programming because it threatened the morals of children. Maybe we should do the same thing with speech that threatens the power of incumbents?

"The notion that the government can tell an organization like the ACLU when and how it should address important civil liberties issues is a form of censorship masquerading as campaign finance reform," ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero declared after the ruling.

Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, said the ruling is "the most significant change in the First Amendment since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which tried to make it a crime to criticize a member of Congress."

In one of those rare when-pigs-fly moments, they're both right.

Again, I'm not against the ruling because it's censorship. I'm against the ruling because it is precisely the kind of censorship the Constitution is supposed to limit to the maximum extent possible.

The folks who exclaim that banning cigarette advertising to kids is censorship are right, but at least there's an argument to be had over whether keeping kids off cigarettes is a legitimate state interest.

But political speech is what the First Amendment is about; it's what it was intended to protect. Remember: the First Amendment says Congress can't even "abridge" free speech. Abridge means to trim or diminish, several rungs below "censor."

But that doesn't matter. Apparently, we've spent so much time using the First Amendment to defend stuff the founders would have had no problem censoring that we've forgotten what it was truly designed to defend. Shame on us all.

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