Idaho joins Montana in effort to limit speech

Idaho is one of 22 states backing Montana in its attempt to preserve that state’s ban on corporate and union campaign spending despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a federal prohibition on such money in elections. The states are asking the high court to take a second look at the 2010 Citizens United case. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. It found no overriding government interest for banning corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make election-related independent expenditures. The court ruled that corporations and unions have the same political speech rights as individuals under the First Amendment.

In standing with Montana, Idaho Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane said Idaho is simply trying to make sure Idaho’s ability to manage its campaign finance laws is not superseded by the court’s ruling, which runs contrary to a prohibition Montana has had in place since the early part of the last century.

Idaho, for instance, doesn’t ban corporate donations, at least not yet. Campaign contributions are limited to $1,000 for legislative candidates and $5,000 for statewide offices per election cycle. Keep in mind that campaign finance laws are a government-imposed limitation on free speech. People support campaign finance restrictions because they think that money is a corrupting influence in campaigns. And while it is easy for some people to shake their fists at “evil, rich corporations,” or “corrupt labor unions,” many are neither rich nor evil. They’re just everyday people who choose to organize in a particular, legal way.

Farmers, ranchers, restaurateurs, clinicians, accountants, landscapers, electricians, carpenters and plenty of people in other professions form legal entities for reasons that have more to do with tax liability, estate planning and the right to freely associate with other entrepreneurs and workers than it has to do with the intent to spread evil and influence elections. The construction of campaign influence has historically been pretty simple: a campaign commercial here, a pamphlet or billboard there, yard signs everywhere.

But what if a business, for example, decides to use its resources — say, a billboard on the town’s main strip — to convey a political message? Of course, a lot of businesses don’t have billboards (the government is doing a great job outlawing ‘em), but many a business now has a web page, or a Facebook page. Shall the government limit the ability of a business to use that vehicle of communication should the value of those resources exceed a certain dollar amount? Will such speech be banned or restricted?

Carl Graham, president of the Montana Policy Institute, said it best: “All we do by restricting speech is protect those who already have megaphones in place. That’s one reason why members of Congress enjoy an 85-95 percent re-election rate with a 10-15 percent approval rating. Campaign finance laws should really be called incumbent protection laws, as they erect enormous barriers to any new voices or interests.” The private sector is hobbled. Free speech is restricted, barely tolerated. Meanwhile, bureaucrats, government agencies and units of government have unfettered access to the halls of power, and they use it. If people are really concerned about the “corrupting influence” of money in elections, the answer isn’t to limit types of speech and who can do the speaking, but to limit the government.

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