The organized press has long served as a complaisant cheerleader for campaign finance restrictions, confident that the regulations they enthusiastically support will never come back to be used against them. After all, most all campaign finance laws include a “press exemption.”
But there ought to be growing apprehension among traditional media reporters and editorialists about their support for campaign finance restrictions. According to this story, the Arizona “Clean Elections” Commission will soon be in the business of deciding whose endorsements are “legitimate” news and whose are not.
Many readers will be familiar with ongoing litigation in the state of Washington, in which the state has ordered a radio station to report as “campaign contributions” the value of on-air commentary of talk radio hosts. The Institute for Justice is representing the radio jocks in their legal challenge. (You can download CCP’s amicus brief supporting the radio station from this link as well). Now, Arizona is considering whether or not an endorsement in a newsletter sent out by a gun dealer constitutes the press. To some, this will seem like an easy call – it’s clearly not a “real” newspaper. But for the government to make that judgment it effectively has put itself in the position of licensing newspapers. Some newspapers will be allowed to editorialize, and others will not.
By what criteria can the state make this determination? That the newspaper charges for copies? No, many urban areas and most college towns have newspapers that are given away for free. That it does not editorialize? No, most newspapers editorialize. That the publisher’s primary business is news? No, most major networks and many major newspapers are now owned by major corporate conglomerates. That it aims to turn a profit? No, most major think magazines, such as Reason, The New Republic, Washington Monthlyl, the Weekly Standard and the like are intentionally subsidized, with no serious thought that they will ever turn a profit.
As campaign finance expands in its never ending quest to prevent “circumvention” of the law, it will increasingly bring the “press” into contact with that law. Rather than put the state de facto into the business of licensing publications, we should recognize that that is precisely one of the evils that the First Amendment aimed to prevent.