Free Speech and Soft Money

by Jonathan Wallace

Recently some television ads, sponsored by "Republicans for Clean Air," attacked Senator McCain and praised Governor Bush's environmental record. They turned out to have been purchased by a Republican billionaire, Sam Wyly, an old Texas friend of the governor, who had started the organization the day before in order to buy the ads. This is being touted by some as evidence of the evils of soft money in politics. In reality, they point out, Bush has an awful environmental record, and McCain does too; the choice between them is like that between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. So we have the spectacle of a transparent manipulation, the use of money to tell a lie to the public in a way calculated to help one candidate and harm another.

But the First Amendment clearly says that (except in limited cases like libel and consumer fraud, not involved here) it is not government's job to determine truth and lies; it is the role of each of us as a free moral agent. So what in particular should create an exception for Wyly's dishonest advertisement? The only visible difference is that Wyly's lie was told during a campaign and concerned the candidates.

In this issue of the Spectacle I have another essay, entitled Mayor Giuliani and Unarmed Black Men, in which I state that the mayor tolerates police lawlessness in New York City, and I ask the reader to vote for his opponent, Hillary Clinton, in the Senate race. What is the practical difference between my essay and Wyly's advertisement? While I can find some distinctions, I see none that the law should be permitted to make.

I believe my own words in the Giuliani piece, but to some of my readers they will appear an injurious falsehood. And who is to say anyway that Sam Wyly does not believe that the Governor is a better environmentalist than the Senator? If he believes his words or not is not for the law to decide (the Senator is a public figure and calling him a bad environmentalist could not be libel anyway.)

Yes, but Wyly is a billionaire, and I am not; he is a friend of Governor Bush, and I do not know Hillary Clinton. But so what? We both did the same thing: got interested in an issue, and by extension a political race, and bought some time or space to speak out about it. Wyly spent millions to run television ads; it costs me $80 per month to host the Spectacle on someone else's server. The First Amendment does not permit government to intervene just because Mr. Wyly is richer, more visible or better connected than I am.

My essay against the Mayor (actually there have been three, two during the campaign) is a Constitutionally protected act of free speech: I got indignant about something so I wrote about it. But that's all Sam Wyly did: got interested enough in an issue to spend money speaking about it. His millions are no "softer" than my eighty dollars. Any scheme of campaign regulation that would allow government to intervene with Sam Wyly's ads would allow it to interfere with my essay as well. Let's not go there.