The other week I was on an American Cinema Foundation panel about the Public Broadcasting Service. Filmmaker Mel Stuart, the auteur behind Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, spent most of his time talking about how important it was to keep PBS publicly funded because it's the only network out there buying high-quality documentaries from codgers like him. At the end of the discussion, I pointed out that having taxpayers finance media will guarantee political meddling and litmus tests, which in fact have been irritating lefties about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting these past few years.
"Oh!" he said (quotes are not exact, but good enough for government work). "That's why it's very important to keep the government away from PBS!"
I was reminded of that neat bit of self-delusion yesterday when reading news that House Democrats had followed The New York Times' odious advice to kill the Online Freedom of Speech Act, which would have exempted weblogs from Federal Election Commission campaign finance rules. Once again, the party supported by people who truly do believe they and they alone care deeply about free speech has casually stomped on the freedom to speak.
The bill itself would have placed an extra layer of statutory protection over what should already be (but isn't) protected by the First Amendment—the right to buy political advertisements online. As the mess of appalling FEC rules currently stand, nobody can legally purchase a broadcast, satellite, or cable advertisement that even mentions a candidate for federal office within 60 days of a general election (30 days for a primary), unless he or she sets up or joins a political action committee (PAC) and agrees to abide by the heavy regulations that govern PACs' funding and disclosure.
Now, under pressure from crusading campaign-finance Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), the FEC is finalizing rules that could mean the restriction not only of online advertisements, but of e-mail lists, partisan blogging, and potentially even hyperlinking. The Online Freedom of Speech bill, sponsored by Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling and co-sponsored by three Democrats and six Republicans (including Jeff Flake and Ron Paul), would have amended the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 "to exclude communications over the Internet from the definition of public communication," essentially making the Internet off-limits to the FEC. Because the measure was not brought up under normal House rules, it required a two-thirds majority for passage, but fell 46 votes short, 225-182. Democrats voted nay, 143 to 46.
"The bill that we are considering will...allow political parties to use soft money to pay for Internet ads bashing candidates," warned Massachusetts Democrat Martin Meehan. (Horrors!) "I am a friend of the Internet. In fact, I sponsored legislation that would exempt bloggers from FEC legislation. But the issue is how we draw the lines to balance. We do not exempt the Internet from laws controlling child pornography; we do not allow child pornography on the Internet. We do not exempt the Internet from consumer safety laws. We do not exempt the Internet from intellectual property or copyright laws. We do not because we think those laws are important."
I think this quote speaks volumes about some Democrats' Mel Stuart–like internal dissonance on the First Amendment. I am a friend of free speech, they assure us at every turn, but we need to draw lines, because when yucky people spend money to communicate a political message through the news media, it's just like child pornography, reckless endangerment, and intellectual property theft. Combine this attitude with a general cluelessness about the unintended speech-impairing consequences of FEC rule-making, and you get the obscene sight of the New York Times editorial board, which bathed itself and Judith Miller in the holy waters of the First Amendment in 15 different editorials, arguing with a straight face that "The bill uses freedom of speech as a fig leaf."
I agree with very few of the political complaints my right-of-center Hollywood pals make, but there's one observation I've witnessed countless times with my own eyes: Some lefties can't even conceive that a Republican would care about free speech, and so therefore if a righty is going on about the First Amendment it must be some kind of a scam. (Or "a wolfish assault in sheep's clothing," in the Times' inelegant phrasing.) I'm very familiar with this line of thinking because, to my great discredit, I used to share it precisely in regards in campaign finance reform.
Assuming the venality of your political opponents is like a great mirror-removal machine —no sense checking your own blemishes when there's a wolf outside the door! And old myths die hard, self-mythology hardest of all.
An unbelievable number of Republicans still believe that they are the party of limited government, all evidence notwithstanding. When I called them the "party of Big Government" the other day, one e-mail correspondent blamed the Republicans' recent federal spending binge on "the Dems, Tom Daschle...and his ilk." None of whom, of course, have been in power for the last three years.
Similarly, Democrats still imagine themselves somehow as the inheritors of Lenny Bruce, rather than the torch-carriers for Ed Meese. You wonder how long it will take for partisans to even notice they have essentially switched sides.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert has promised to re-introduce the Online Freedom of Speech Act as soon as possible for a simple-majority vote. "Net-roots" Democrats, at the least, are pushing their leaders to come around. It would be nice if either party started taking either free speech or limited government with anything approaching seriousness or principle, but the first step is to admit you have a problem.