The Right Coast

February 14, 2006
The Evil of Campaign Finance Legislation
By Mike Rappaport

This is from the article on the same by Brian Anderson, previously linked to by Maimon:

Two popular conservative talk radio hosts, Kirby Wilbur and John Carlson, explained why the gas tax was bad news and urged listeners to sign the 225,000 petitions necessary to get the rollback initiative on the November ballot, though they played no official role in the campaign and regularly featured on their shows defenders as well as opponents of the tax hike. With the hosts’ help, the petition drive got almost twice the needed signatures, but the ballot initiative, strongly opposed by labor unions, the state’s liberal media, environmental groups, and other powerful interests, narrowly lost.

Meantime, however, a group of pro-tax politicians sued No New Gas Tax, arguing that Wilbur’s and Carlson’s on-air commentaries were “in-kind contributions” and that the anti-tax campaign had failed to report them to the proper state authorities. The suit sought to stop NNGT from accepting any more of these “contributions” until it disclosed their worth—though how the initiative’s organizers could control media discussions or calculate their monetary value remained unclear. The complaint also socked NNGT with civil penalties, attorneys’ fees and costs, and other damages. Even more offensively, to litigate the suit the politicians hired a private law firm, Foster Pepper & Shefelman, which serves as bond counsel to Washington State. The firm, which represents unions, hospitals, and retirement funds among its other clients, could thus clean up from the state’s plan to sell gas-tax-backed bonds. Appearance of corruption, anyone?

The real target of the suit was clearly Wilbur and Carlson, or, more accurately, their corporate employer, Fisher Communications. If NNGT received the “contributions,” that meant Fisher had sent them by broadcasting Wilbur’s and Carlson’s support for the initiative. Washington law limits contributions in the last three weeks of a political campaign to $5,000. Depending on how one measured the dollar worth of on-air “contributions,” Fisher could thus face big fines and criminal sanctions if it let Wilbur and Carlson keep talking about the gas tax. “Thankfully, Fisher assured us that we could keep talking about the subject on the air, and we did,” Wilbur says. The judge ruled in favor of the pro-tax pols, though he finessed the $5,000 limitation problem by ruling only on the “contributions” that occurred prior to the campaign’s last three weeks.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal defense group, has entered the fray, filing both an appeal to the Washington Supreme Court and a counterclaim against the politicians behind the suit. “I think this case presents a substantial issue under the First Amendment,” institute attorney Bill Maurer explained. “This is one of the most important cases nationally about the right of the press to speak freely, without the interference of the government or regulation of the government—because the power to regulate is the power to suppress.” Should the appeal lose, the days of political talk radio could be over not only in Washington State but everywhere. “McCain-Feingold could definitely be used in the same fashion,” Maurer tells me. “In fact, the prosecutors in this case say McCain-Feingold permits them to do this. But pretty much any state that has campaign-finance laws that restrict contributions is subject to this abuse, too.”
When we look back at George Bush's presidency, one of his worst acts -- in some ways far worse than Medicare Prescription Drugs, since it was unnecessary -- was his approval of McCain-Feingold. Just compare that to Ronald Reagan's veto of the Fairness Doctrine, which set in motion the new media. And, of course, the Supreme Court's approval of that law does little honor to an institution that unfortunately had little to begin with.