by Steve Chapman
love the First Amendment, which protects freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Judging from the adoring news coverage, journalists also love Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain ("John McCain Walks on Water" was one headline). So it would be reasonable to assume that McCain also loves the First Amendment. But it would also be wrong.
McCain, who is planning to run for president, is not one of those politicians who are willing to shortchange this particular guarantee just occasionally. Until the war in Kosovo came along, the only thread connecting his various causes was a disregard for the value of free expression. "He has consistently treated the First Amendment as nothing more than a stumbling block in the way of his political, so-called solutions," says Laura W. Murphy, director of the Washington national office of the American Civil Liberties Union. Thanks to his unassuming, non-ideological manner and his authentic war-hero credentials, though, McCain has been able to get away with it.
At the end of April he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of a constitutional amendment to add an asterisk to the First Amendment, with the accompanying notation: "Void in cases of flag desecration." If approved, this measure would mark the first time the Constitution has been altered to abridge free speech rights.
It has precipitated a huge volume of commentary from veterans groups, civil libertarians and constitutional scholars. And McCain seems to have given this discussion no consideration at all.
In his testimony, he made what has to be the most ridiculous statement ever on an issue that has had plenty of them: "I'm not going to get into a constitutional debate. I feel very strongly about the flag." Given his experience in a North Vietnamese POW camp, McCain has a right to feel strongly about the flag. But that doesn't excuse him from coming up with serious answers to serious criticisms.
The senator has a long history of letting his wide-ranging conscience be our guide. He became the darling of the capital press corps for pushing what is generously known as campaign finance reform. He has come up with a cure for the scandal of too many people doing too much to communicate their opinions about the central mechanism of a democratic society: elections.
That is not how the sponsors of the McCain-Feingold bill put it. They say the problem is that "there is too much money in politics." Among their proposed remedies are "voluntary" limits on campaign spending, free TV time for candidates and a ban on ads by independent groups that suggest support for or opposition to a candidate.
But the Supreme Court pointed out in 1976 that money is the equivalent of speech. A spending limit, it said, "necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached. This is because virtually every means of communicating in today's mass society requires the expenditure of money."
Free TV time involves a different sort of infringement on free speech -- forcing broadcasters to air views they may not agree with at their own expense. The ban on certain ads by independent groups deprives people of potentially useful information for fear they may be unduly influenced.
This impulse to suppress communications because they may affect what people do also surfaced in McCain's tobacco bill, which would have compelled cigarette companies to stop the sort of advertising that doesn't meet with his approval. He proposed banishing all billboard displays, cartoon characters, celebrity endorsements and ads in magazines that may be read by youngsters.
McCain thinks it's a bad thing for people, especially children, to smoke. So anything that may reduce the appeal of smoking is good, even if it means employing government power to interfere with peaceful communications about a legal product.
He thinks pornography is also bad for kids. It was therefore inevitable that he would draft a bill, enacted last year, requiring libraries getting federal Internet subsidies to install software filters that block all material "inappropriate for minors."
Never mind that librarians think there are many better ways to protect children from on-line dangers. Never mind that the filters block a lot of material that may be helpful to teens. Never mind that this would effectively censor material that is perfectly legal to publish and read. McCain feels strongly about this issue, and if the First Amendment gets in the way, it's tough luck for the First Amendment.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote that in a free society, the correct remedy for dangerous speech is not to stifle it but to answer it. McCain, however, hears sweet music in the sounds of silence.
May 17, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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