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January 3, 2007
The Point Of No Return (Update and Bump)

With all of the assaults on free political speech that have come as a result of the McCain-Feingold Act (or the BCRA), one has to wonder how much farther we can go before reversing the damage becomes impossible. Mark Tapscott shows us just how far this law reaches by relating how the BCRA affected a NASCAR racing team. No, I'm not kidding:

How does one know when the critical point in a Republic's loss of its basic liberties like freedom of speech has been passed? A Dec. 22 notice from the Federal Election Commission looks very much like that point for America.

The notice concerned a complaint the FEC received from one Sydnor Thompson that Kirk Shelmerdine had improperly committed an independent expenditure on behalf of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign during the 2004 race.

Do you want to know what that "independent expenditure" was? Shelmerdine put a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker on his racing car. It stood out because Shelmerdine had no significant sponsorship, not even the President's re-election campaign. He put the bumper sticker on his car just to generate a little publicity for himself. Instead, Sydnor Thompson filed an FEC complaint against him.

Guess who Sydnor likes to support? John Edwards, Erskine Bowles, and other Democrats. Sydnor may have wanted to generate a little of his own publicity, as he apparently has a book to flog. The North Carolina attorney apparently takes great delight in telling anecdotes where colleagues compare him to Jesus, among other incidents related to this "pilgrim".

The FEC, in its infinite wisdom, decided to take pity on Shlemerdine and only drop an "admonishment" on his head for the dastardly violation of attaching a bumper sticker to his car. Given Shelmerdine's ranking in NASCAR, more people would have seen it on the 494 during a Minnesota rush hour, but the FEC decided that he had given Bush free advertising and therefore made some sort of in-kind contribution that required regulation.

As Tapscott notes, how long before all drivers who slap a bumper sticker on their car are determined to have given an in-kind contribution? In fact, how long before all political speech is regulated for its monetary value to a campaign? For me and other bloggers, this is no academic point. When we exercise our First Amendment rights and thousands of people read or hear our speech, it becomes a focus for the "reformers" who insist that the government set limits on campaigns and political speech.

When a bumper sticker inspires the federal government to admonish a private citizen for their political speech, that point of no return appears a hell of a lot closer than ever before.

UPDATE and BUMP, 1/3: CQ reader Mr. Michael has a link to the complaint, which has a low-quality reproduction of the car. The ad in question is obviously much larger than a traditional bumper sticker, which shows that Shelmerdine indeed did not have much credibility as a racer for attracting advertisers. It also, according to Mr. Michael, makes a difference regarding the regulation of speech.

Does the size of the ad make a difference? Not to me. I have a "Blogs for Bush" graphic on my sidebar, and I wouldn't want to get in a tussle over its size to determine the FEC's authority to regulate my speech. Once again, if we start making those distinctions about speech, then we leave it to the federal government to enforce them -- which eventually makes them the approving agency for all of our political speech.

If Shelmerdine wanted to use up prime advertising space on his vehicle to support Bush or Kerry, that's his right. It only makes a difference in our current system because we've created a behemoth of an oversight system that forces a series of artificial categories for contributions and spending, all of it hypocritical and most of it an offense to the notion of free speech and free political activity. What's next -- do we start figuring out the value of celebrities endorsing their candidates on talk shows as in-kind contributions, too? I guarantee that the value will be higher than the ad on Shelmerdine's vehicle. It's not just a slippery slope we're on here, but an abrupt drop towards government-regulated politics, and in many ways we're already falling.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 3, 2007 5:20 AM

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Tracked on January 3, 2007 6:08 AM


The McCain-Feingold law is like the proverbial camel's nose in the tent. Can the rest of the camel be far behind?

I recently re-read Allan Bloom's 1987 classic "The Closing of the American Mind". While the subject was primarily about decline of education, the book did foreshadow the rise of the powerful neo-Stalinist PC movement seen today on American universities. It's not surprising to me that thought control and censorship (the real motivation behind "campaign finance reform") had it's genesis in the so-called "free-speech movement" of the 1960s campus leftists. Nor is it surprising that this totalitarianism has since spread from American universities into the American political system.

Thus, if you speak out against a Democratic politician, or any cherished leftist belief, you are labeled as (pick one or more of the following) a racist, homophobe, chickenhawk, Christianist, or sexist. Worse, as Kirk Shelmerdine and the Swift Boat Veterans have found out, exercising your First Amendment rights can earn you a commandment with the FEC (and maybe a court date) if your politics happen to annoy certain powerful factions.

The irony is that the MSM (arguably the loudest voice pushing censorship-as-campaign-finance-reform) bellows with unhinged rage at the slightest criticism. Can you imagine their reaction if someone - a Republican, say - had proposed making newspapers and news broadcasts subject to McCain-Feingold?

Posted by: Mwalimu Daudi [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 1, 2007 6:25 PM

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