Column: Don't muzzle freedom of speech
By U.S. Sen Chuck Grassley
WASHINGTON — There are few things more sacred to the individual rights of citizens of the United States than the Bill of Rights. The Founders embraced the natural rights of individuals and secured for posterity these timeless principles to thwart infringement of individual liberties by government overreach.
The Senate Judiciary Committee recently held a hearing to examine a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would change the sacred protection of the First Amendment. Introduced last summer, the proposed amendment is being championed by the U.S. Senate Majority Leader. Those of us who oppose the amendment see it as an effort to silence the dissent of those who don’t agree with certain political views.
Specifically, Senate Joint Resolution 19 would limit a fundamental tenet of self-government, the unfiltered ability of the electorate to advocate, influence, persuade, denounce, criticize and challenge those running for public office. The proposed constitutional amendment would abridge the fundamental right of free speech by enabling the government to limit funds contributed to candidates and restrict spending by individuals or groups to express political views to the public during an election.
The proposed amendment would water down the First Amendment and suppress the democratic process by deterring political free speech and shielding American voters from hearing different points of view.
Electoral politics is a necessary function of representative government. Whether seeking re-election or running for public office for the first time, candidates reach out to grassroots supporters, go door-to-door, secure endorsements and ask for donations to help finance their campaigns.
I support prompt, complete, full disclosure of campaign contributions to help keep the electoral process transparent and accountable to the voting public, but curbing political speech doesn’t square with our constitutional principles. Allowing the government to dictate limits on how much money citizens choose to spend on issues they feel very strongly about, from political ads to voter guides, puts government authority above the rights of the governed.
The U.S. Constitution has been amended only 27 times in the last 227 years. The Founders wisely made the amendment process a deliberative one, requiring a resounding consensus of three-quarters of the states (38 of 50) and two-thirds approval of both houses of Congress. Changing the charter of liberty governing the nation deserves such a thorough consent of the governed.
This proposal would upset the brilliant dynamic of our system of representative government, one that is exceptional to human history. Ours is the first constitution based on the principle that “we the people” are sovereign with unalienable rights, delegating to government only such power as necessary to secure these rights.
So, instead of the people reining in government authority, broad new government authority would rein in the people’s freedom of political speech. The tail would wag the dog. And by that measure, the bite, S.J. Res. 19, is far more worrisome than the 24/7 bark of free speech during a political campaign.
Our institutions of government are stronger when more citizens participate in the electoral process. That includes exercising the right of political free speech and exercising the right to vote. Free speech creates a marketplace of ideas and fosters participatory democracy, allowing an educated citizenry to cast votes to elect its leaders.
At first glance, public cynicism about campaign spending may cause some to consider it might be a good thing to restrict campaign contributions and limit political spending. However, if you have strong views anywhere along the ideological and political spectrum on issues such as pro-life or pro-choice, gun rights or gun control, climate change, zoning laws, debt, entitlement or tax reform, Americans have constitutional rights to speak up and contribute time and money to the candidates who support causes they support.
The proposed amendment would jeopardize the ability of citizens to criticize politicians, challenge government policy and influence their neighbor’s views on politics and policy upon penalty of imprisonment.
In the end, 535 members of Congress could decide what citizens may or may not say leading up to an election. Restricting or criminalizing free speech has no place among a free people in a free society.
Supporters of this amendment are barking up America’s liberty tree, ignoring the deeply rooted values enshrined in our nation’s historic charters of individual sovereignty. If approved, it would allow the heavy hand of government to roll back prized freedoms for which generations of Americans have fought and died to protect.
Watchdogs for good government can see this amendment is doggone bad policy chasing after self-serving politics at the expense of freedom. That’s a perverse price to pay in the land of the free and home of the brave.