By Annamarie Adkins
SEATTLE, Washington, SEPT. 22, 2009 (Zenit.org).- It's conventional wisdom that getting the "money" out of politics is a good thing.
But why is it assumed that when politicians -- whom the public normally perceives as nakedly self-interested at best, and corrupt at worst -- write laws regulating their own behavior, they don't do so for their own benefit, or to insulate themselves from public pressure?
That is just one concern among many of a coalition of organizations from across the political spectrum that has recently teamed up to fight the prohibition of corporate political speech at the United States Supreme Court. The case is called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Citizens United involves the government's ban of a cable TV movie criticizing Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary season. The case raises a stark issue: If the government can ban movies, why can't it ban books, too?
To better understand the reach of campaign finance laws, ZENIT turned to attorney Bill Maurer, executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter. The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm based in Arlington, Virginia, is one of the leading opponents of campaign finance laws in the United States.
Maurer authored one of the Institute for Justice's amicus briefs in the Citizens United case, and is currently litigating a handful of related cases around the country.
He shared with ZENIT why Catholics, particularly because of their history of persecution and status as minorities and outsiders, should be skeptical of laws that limit the ability to speak about political issues.
ZENIT: Should Catholics be suspicious of campaign finance reform laws? Isn't it good to get the money out of politics? Won't an excess of resources on one side of an issue or candidate distort the debate?
Maurer: All Americans should be suspicious of governmental attempts to regulate and restrict political activity. Catholics, who have at times suffered discrimination at the hands of a hostile majority, should specifically be concerned that we do not give the government tools it could use to silence voices with which it disagrees.
If the government has the ability to determine when the influence of one side of a political debate has become "excessive" or "undue," then the government will have the ability to turn down the voice of a speaker to make the debate "fair."
It will come as no surprise, then, that the government will often conclude that the voices that need muzzling are the ones that oppose those in power. In that regard, Catholics are well aware of the long tradition of some in this country to bemoan the perceived "undue" influence of the Church in government affairs.
As for money in politics, in a country this big with so many people, money is an absolutely essential tool for speakers to reach the public. Quite simply, given how much the government does at the state and federal level, it is surprising that Americans do not spend more money on political speech.
As the government grows larger and touches areas of people's lives in ways it has never done before, the need for informed public debate about what goes on in the government becomes stronger than ever. The public's ability to hear political ideas should not be limited to those who have the resources or capacity to hear a politician speak in person.
ZENIT: How do campaign finance laws affect the political participation of both the bishops and the laity more generally? Can you give specific examples?
Maurer: Bishops and other members of the clergy are often more circumspect regarding political activities, not because of campaign finance laws, but because of the restrictions on political activities related to the preservation of the Church's tax-exempt status.
However, when the bishops and clergy do become involved in specific campaigns, such as state initiatives regarding human life issues, they are burdened by the same restrictions other citizens are.<p>For instance, if they organize to spend money to oppose a "death with dignity" initiative, like the one in Washington State, they have to form an issue committee and declare the names, addresses, and employer of contributors to the effort so that the government can publish them on an Internet database.
These burdens create enormous disincentives for people to engage in political activity. This is especially true of disclosure rules.
For example, donors to the anti-gay marriage initiative in California (Proposition 8) found themselves the subjects of threats, boycotts, demonstrations, and economic reprisal after the opponents of the initiative viewed their donation information on a state Web site. At the same time, opponents of the measure claim that proponents used disclosure information to try to blackmail donors into giving equal contributions to each side. Political harassment is often an equal opportunity game.
As for the laity, when people band together and pool their resources to pursue political change, they often discover that their efforts are subject to campaign finance laws.
Indeed, one of the leading campaign finance laws of the past few years involved Wisconsin Right To Life's efforts to pressure two senators to bring President Bush's judicial nominees to a vote, an act which brought their efforts under federal campaign finance law restrictions because one of the two senators were running for re-election.
ZENIT: Recently, the Diocese of Bridgeport came under scrutiny by the State of Connecticut for allegedly violating its grassroots lobbying law when it encouraged Catholics to oppose a bill that would have affected Church governance. What happened in that case? Do you believe we will see more instances of the government regulating the Church's voice in the public square?
Maurer: In March 2009, the Connecticut General Assembly introduced legislation that would have deprived priests and bishops of the ability to sit on the bodies of the corporations that control parish property in Connecticut, and mandated that the governing bodies of these corporations come solely from the lay members of the parish.
In response to what it viewed as a direct challenge to the Church's authority over the internal workings of its parishes, the Diocese of Bridgeport posted information about the bill on its Web site and requested pastors read a statement at weekend Mass urging opposition to the bill.
The Church also encouraged parishioners to attend a rally and to contact their legislators.
These efforts led the diocese to be investigated by the Connecticut Office of State Ethics for violations of the state's "grassroots lobbying" law, which requires registration with the state if an entity engages in "soliciting others to communicate with any official or his staff in the legislative or executive branch of government ... for the purpose of influencing any legislative or administrative action."
The diocese filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of this law, but after the Connecticut Attorney General concluded that the Church's activities fit within a statutory exception, the OSE dropped its investigation and the diocese voluntarily dismissed its lawsuit.
The experience of the Bridgeport Archdiocese is unfortunately all too common.
Americans often find themselves embroiled in complex and far-reaching campaign finance laws when they engage in activities they rightly view as protected under the First Amendment.
Even if they are found not to have violated any rules, the emotional and financial cost of being investigated by the government can be overwhelming.
Any church that crosses the threshold into "grassroots lobbying" can suffer the same fate as the Bridgeport Archdiocese if it urges the faithful to take action on public issues vital to the Catholic faith. Such parishes may find themselves using their finite resources to de fend against government regulators instead of using that money to further their apostolic mission.
ZENIT: Some say that the rowdy town hall meetings and publicity efforts currently affecting the U.S. health care debate demonstrate the problem of manufactured activism, as well as illustrate the need to regulate grassroots lobbying and require disclosure of donors. How would you respond?
Maurer: There is perhaps no activity more at the core of protected First Amendment liberties than citizens speaking to other citizens regarding the wisdom of proposed legislation.
Quite simply, it is not the government's place to regulate how Americans speak to each other about the issues that affect their lives. Moreover, there is no difference -- from the Constitution's perspective -- between "manufactured" activism and other kinds of activism.
In other words, there is no such thing as authentic or inauthentic speech; there is only speech. If the government were to begin compiling lists of Americans' political activities, these lists would soon turn into little more than government-mandated enemies' lists.
With regard to whether the debate over health care is "rowdy" or not -- some political speech is dignified, informed, and polite. Some is not.
Americans have a great tradition of raucous debates about issues dating all the way back to the founding of this nation and Catholics have sometimes been the rowdiest speakers on the issues.
We would lose much of our ability to engage in the unfettered exchange of ideas if we were to allow some regulatory agency to police the quality -- and thus the content -- of our speech. If you disagree with the manner or content of someone's speech, the cure is to speak up yourself about why they are wrong, not to shut down the other speaker.
ZENIT: What principles should Catholics keep in mind when they evaluate various proposals to reform participation in the political process?
Maurer: At a time when many of the Church's teachings and beliefs conflict with many beliefs held by the political establishment across the country, Catholics should recall that giving the government the means to control political debate can result in the silencing of political dissent.
In the examples I previously mentioned -- Proposition 8, the Wisconsin Right to Life case, and the experiences of the Bridgeport Diocese -- campaign finance laws were used to try to shut down political activity supportive of Church views. The lesson is that when government has the power to regulate core political speech, any speaker may find itself silenced.
The government no longer investigates and logs the activities of political outsiders, as it did with the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s. Instead, it now forces citizens to report themselves and then makes the database of citizen activities available to anyone with access to a computer and the Internet.
This cannot be a good development for a Church that speaks so often against the predominant views of those in government.
With each proposal to "reform" campaign finance laws, Catholics should therefore ask themselves: (i) will this encourage or discourage political speech and activity, (ii) does this interfere with the ability of those in the minority to freely and unreservedly express their views, and (iii) will this proposal give those in power a tool with which to suppress viewpoints with which they disagree.
In the end, Catholics should support a vibrant and unregulated public square, where the truth and wisdom of the issues that affect all of our lives may be freely and passionately debated.
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