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Beware when 'reform' means 'censorship'

Beware when 'reform' means 'censorship'

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House Majority Leader Dick Armey recently made headlines when he was caught tailoring legislation to penalize a newspaper that criticized his son. Armey's staffers deny that revenge motivates their boss, but the legislative strong-arm move supports charges that politicians are exploiting concerns about media power and campaign finance to silence independent voices in politics.

The recently passed Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act restricts donations to political parties. It also imposes tight limits on political advertisements by activist organizations around election time. This leaves politicians and media outlets among the few voices unmuzzled by the law.

Just weeks before Armey tried to modify a military appropriations bill to punish Belo Corp., the parent company of the Dallas Morning News, the Center for Individual Freedom warned, "The media stands to gain enormous power in the political process should BCRA be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, as they're exempt."

Lawmakers — both those who supported and opposed the BCRA — apparently agree. According to the Washington Post, officeholders "fear the media may become even more powerful once parties are no longer able to finance campaign ads."

So it's little surprise that Terry Holt, a spokesman for Dick Armey, told the Dallas Morning News that Armey has "a long-standing concern about independence in the media and about the responsibility that media companies have to provide a certain amount of responsible coverage in a media market where competition doesn't exist."

Apparently not meeting Rep. Armey's standard for "responsible coverage" were Dallas Morning News stories about Scott Armey's unsuccessful effort to succeed to his father's seat in Congress. The paper ran stories that questioned the younger Armey's ethics as a county judge.

To express his concerns about the "independence" of the media — but not to retaliate for the treatment of his son, we're told — Rep. Armey penned legislative language that would have forced any company structured exactly like Belo Corp. to sell one of its media properties.

Even if Rep. Armey is sincere in his claims that his action was a slap at increasingly powerful media, he's protesting media power that was magnified by Congress itself. After all, the Dallas Morning News speaks loudly only because politicians have worked so hard to emasculate political parties and advocacy groups that might offer contrasting opinions.

In a 2000 article for Reason magazine, James V. DeLong of the Competitive Enterprise Institute pointed out that "campaign laws present a stark fox-guarding-the-henhouse scenario: Except for judicial enforcement of the Constitution, incumbents have carte blanche to write the rules under which people will try to unseat them."

Politicians have invented spider webs of red tape to ensnare anybody who chooses to speak out on political matters. Stopping just short of actually forbidding criticism of sitting politicians, the rules threaten dire consequences for anybody who gathers funds and resources to speak out on an issue and fails to dot every "i."

In California, activists Russell Howard and Steve Cicero were slapped with fines of $808,000 after their grassroots organization targeted a state senator for defeat. The penalty was for failing to properly identify contributors to the group's $103,091 war chest. Unpaid, the fine has grown to over one million dollars.

Such draconian penalties tied to intrusive rules allow government officials to claim that they're engaged in reform — regulating the flow of money into politics — while effectively discouraging political participation. That's why the ACLU and dozens of other organizations have gone to court to make their case that campaign finance "reform" is nothing but clever censorship.

"Those who advocate government controls on what they call 'sham' or 'phony' or 'so-called' issue ads, and those who advocate outlawing or severely restricting 'soft money' should realize how broad their proposals would sweep and how much First Amendment law they would run afoul," says the ACLU.

Until now, journalists were shielded by the First Amendment from such attacks on free speech. Lawmakers might cut the flow of funds to activists and grassroots critics, but editorialists could rely on constitutional protection for their words.

Armey's effort indicates that politicians may have found a new loophole in legal protections for free speech. By going after the Dallas Morning News's corporate parent, Armey found a way to punish a media critic without overtly forbidding the critic to speak.

Rep. Armey's crude effort to silence unfriendly journalists in the name of media reform appears dead in the water — for now. Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike appear unwilling to turn a military appropriations bill into a vehicle for personal revenge. Some even appear to be concerned about the implications for free speech in the legislative maneuver.

But if so-called campaign finance reform survives legal challenges, media outlets may soon offer relatively isolated criticism of politicians in an environment in which many independent voices have been silenced. With rare voices wielding disproportionate weight in the battle for public opinion, legislators can be expected to raise the banner of "reform" once again as they revive efforts to reserve the marketplace of ideas for themselves.

J.D. Tuccille is a Sedona-based senior editor of The Henry Hazlitt Foundation's Free-Market.Net (

— Arizona Daily Sun


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