(I originally published this as a guest column for Oregon Outpost; you may find the original here.)
As a Libertarian, I cherish the freedom of speech, and particularly the freedom to speak about politics and to criticize the government and elected officials. I believe that political speech violates no one's rights, and that therefore it is improper for government to suppress it. I furthermore believe in a right to privacy that includes privacy about one's political beliefs and activities, and consequently oppose mandatory public disclosure of campaign contributors or of independent expenditures. I look back fondly to the founding of this nation, when the Federalist Papers and the Antifederalist Papers were published anonymously to focus the vigorous public debate on ideas, instead of on personalities.
Everyone should have the freedom to express their political ideas, privately or publicly, openly or anonymously, as much or as little as they choose — and the government should protect that right, not create burdensome regulations that stifle political participation.
The accepted rationale behind campaign contribution limits is that large contributions have the potential to give the contributor undue influence over elected officials, creating the potential for corruption. Of course, no one can define what level of influence is "undue" — in a representative government, elected officials should be influenced by the people. Even setting aside the hollow rationale, it is doubtful that a large contribution made in support of a politician's declared agenda would "influence" their actions if elected, anyway. (If my campaign slogan is "a chicken in every pot", and then the National Chicken Council gives my campaign a million dollars, they aren't influencing me — I was already pro-chicken.)
If the problem is rather that government is too cozy with special interests, then the solution is to take away the government's power to play favorites — not to take away freedom of speech. The government has too much power, not the people.
The standard Libertarian advice is that people should have as much freedom, and government as little power, as possible. Giving government broad authority is a mistake. It is a responsibility of legislators to define government power narrowly, to prevent it from stifling individual freedom. How is this perspective applied to the topic of campaign finance? Let us assume, for the sake of argument, the standard rationale — that limiting large contributions reduces the risk of quid pro quo corruption.
We can see immediately that there is no justification to limit contributions to ballot measure campaigns: ballot measures are text, not people, so there is plainly no possibility of corruption of elected officials. Campaign contribution limits for ballot measure campaigns would suppress political speech but have no anticorruption effect whatsoever. But limits would reduce the quantity of political speech, taking information away from voters. Surely that is not what we want.
Similarly, recalls in Oregon involve the removal of an official from office, but not the selection of their successor. So recall efforts do not create the potential for corruption of that successor, who may in fact be unknown to the recall committee and its contributors. (In Farris v. Seabrook, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals followed this reasoning in upholding an injunction against enforcing contribution limits against a recall committee. In that decision, the court noted that no one "has presented any evidence showing that contributions to recall committees in Washington raise the specter of corruption, and certainly not in this case.")
Independent expenditures related to ballot measure and recalls are yet another step removed, and so again pose no corruption risk that could justify the suppression of political speech. More importantly, expenditures for political speech are a direct exercise of freedom of speech, protected by black-letter Constitutional law. Spending your own money on your own political message is your right.
Even when focused narrowly on contributions to political candidates, it is a mistake to limit all contributions without considering their purpose. Political committees may engage in non-electioneering activities that present no potential for corruption, and those activities should not be limited. For example, in Institute for Justice v. State of Washington, the court ruled that "free legal assistance to a political committee in a federal civil rights lawsuit" cannot be treated as an in-kind campaign contribution. (The Motion for Summary Judgment in that case is worth reading.) In Cozen O'Connor v. Phila. Bd. Of Ethics, the court ruled that litigation over ballot access is distinct from electioneering, and that "forgiveness of the Committee's legal debt, incurred to defend [the candidate] in ballot challenge litigation, would not constitute a 'contribution' that is subject to the Code's contribution restrictions."
The pattern in these cases is that the definition of a campaign contribution was too broad, and it took judicial review — meaning lots of time, money, and lawyers — to push the law back to where it belonged. The lesson to learn is that laws should be drafted narrowly in the first place, so they affect only what is intended. The wrong lesson is that there should simply be an exception for legal defense funds — because then you've already forgotten that a legal offense fund may be needed for similar reasons, and you're simply in denial that political committees might engage in any other sort of non-electioneering activity.
When the government has the power to suppress criticism of government officials, you get lèse-majesté as in Thailand (where a tour guide's Facebook posts netted a 30-year jail sentence) or Turkey (where a newspaper editor was arrested for tweets critical of the President). Don't claim that it couldn't happen here — it already has. In 1798, less than ten years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the Sedition Act enabled those same kinds of prosecutions in America. Of course it was unconstitutional. But it happened. Preventing it from happening again requires vigilant defense of your rights.
The Citizens United case, frequently maligned by supporters of campaign limits, was actually a case about protecting the right to criticize government officials. A nonprofit corporation "Citizens United" created a documentary film critical of then-Senator Clinton, and wanted to make it available via video-on-demand shortly before the 2008 primary election in which she was running for President. They wanted to advertise their documentary on broadcast and cable television, which would be considered a corporate independent expenditure — which was totally forbidden (a felony!) in the time shortly before an election.
In other words, there was an association of people pooling their resources for the purpose of publicly criticizing a sitting government official who was running for higher office. But the government had passed a law prohibiting their speech at precisely the time it would have had its greatest impact.
Does suppressing political speech near elections inform the electorate, or keep them ignorant? Does limiting the freedom of people to criticize elected officials make those officials more accountable, or less?
That is the proper context in which to evaluate Hillary Clinton's stated litmus test for Supreme Court appointments. She said that she will only appoint Justices who would overturn a case which affected her, personally. For that, she deserves unceasing scorn.
I agree that "something needs to be done" about the Citizens United decision — and that thing is reading it. The decision deserves to be widely read. It is an excellent example of the Court standing on principle and defending individual rights against a government and popular opinion that would trample on those rights.