Thursday, December 11, 2003

Supreme Court Justices Forget How to Read English! 

Yesterday, December 10, 2003, in what amounted to a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court held to be constitutional those portions of the McCain-Feingold bill (formally known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002) that restrict certain kinds of political advertisements during specified periods before primary and general elections for federal offices. The entire decision runs approximately 298 pages in length, and covers many issues besides restriction of speech.

In my view the decision on restrictions on speech was tragically wrong.

Here's the language of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, in its entirety:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The first phrase reads "Congress shall make no law". The BCRA is clearly a law, that was enacted by Congress and (to my great dismay) signed by President Bush, so it would seem to be covered.

Skipping over the establishment clause, we come to "abridging the freedom of speech". I think that campaign advertisements come well within the definition of "speech" for purposes of the First Amendment. In fact, the main reason for the existence of the First Amendment is to ensure that political ideas, even unpopular ones, are given a fair opportunity to be heard. (It does not, of course, mandate that anyone must listen.) My dictionary (Random House Webster's College Dictionary, April 2000 edition) lists the following under "abridge": 1. to shorten by omission while retaining the basic contents: to abridge a book. 2. to reduce or lessen in duration, scope or extent; diminish; curtail: to abridge a visit. 3. to deprive; cut off.

Now, I'm no constitutional scholar, but one of the many beauties of the United States Constitution is that it is written in plain language that can be understood in concept by pretty much anyone who's made it through most high schools in this country. The difficulties in interpreting the Constitution have arisen mostly (in my view) because changes have occurred in the world that the Founders (not even Franklin or Jefferson) couldn't have dreamed of. This issue, however, is pretty basic, and the effects of changes in technology and society should not affect it much. The inescapable conclusion is that five Justices blew it badly.

We are now on the slippery slope -- the five Justices in the majority on this issue have already done far more damage to our fundamental rights as Americans than all the provisions of the Patriot Act. God help us!

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