Opinion

Big Labor gets exempt from free-speech-killing bill

Timothy Lee Senior Vice President, Center for Individual Freedom

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Those timeless words enshrine the freedoms of speech and political participation within the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. They also constitute the necessary starting point for any discussion of so-called “campaign finance reform” legislation, which limits citizens’ latitude to engage in free speech and political activity in modern society.

“Freedom of speech for me, but not for thee.”

That, in contrast, is the self-righteous mentality of every aspiring despot against whom the First Amendment was specifically drafted to protect. Invariably, such restrictions upon the freedom of speech are rationalized in the name of “the public interest,” which always coincidentally happens to match the partisan objective of the despot in question.

The latest illustrations: Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Schumer and Van Hollen have introduced legislation (supported by the Obama administration) reimposing the same type of First Amendment restrictions that the United States Supreme Court recently declared unconstitutional in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC). In other words, their response to having free speech limitations overturned by the Supreme Court is to roll the same rock back up the same hill.

Under their bill, all contractors with the government and recipients of Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds would be prohibited from U.S. election spending. The legislation would impose that same prohibition upon American businesses with as few as 20 percent of shares owned by foreign nationals, or whose boards of directors happen to have a majority of foreign nationals. (No word yet on whether Schumer, Van Hollen or the Obama administration will recognize their error and suddenly amend their bill to except illegal immigrants.)

But note one big-spending group that Schumer and Van Hollen suspiciously omitted from their prohibition: labor bosses.

According to a report in The Hill quoting Loyola Law School election law professor Richard L. Hasen, Big Labor may receive a free pass in the bill:

“Hasen said some of the biggest campaign spending restrictions in the summary would only affect corporations. For example, large federal contractors, recipients of government bailout funds who have not repaid the money and foreign-owned companies would be banned from election spending. ‘There are no foreign-owned unions, and unions are not government contractors,’ Hasen said. ‘The biggest limitations in this bill apply only to corporations because there are no parallels in the labor world.’“

There is simply no logical or ethical justification for exempting union bosses from the same restrictions that would limit their employer counterparts, considering the hundreds of millions in union members’ dues redirected toward union-friendly politicians. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) alone spent approximately $85 million to elect Obama and Democrats in 2008.

That’s 85 hardworking union members that the SEIU could make millionaires using the same money that it instead spent on political campaigns.

Sadly, that enormous campaign spending explains why Big Labor is excluded from the bill.

Recall that the supposedly “post-partisan” Obama also conveniently omitted powerful labor unions from his vitriol toward the Citizens United decision:

“The Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for Big Oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans. This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington, while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates.”

“Powerful interests” other than Big Labor, that is.

Our Founding Fathers knew very well that every governmental effort to limit citizens’ freedom of speech invariably unlocks the floodgates to partisan favoritism and endless future efforts to suffocate individual rights.

Government efforts to impose so-called “campaign finance reform” abridge the First Amendment’s free speech protections regardless of political favoritism, but the fact that powerful special interests like Big Labor receive free passes makes them all the more shameful and destructive.


Timothy H. Lee is vice president of legal and public affairs at the Center for Individual Freedom.