The Magazine


Nov 17, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 10 • By DAVID FRUM
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The Canadian federal government has been attempting to impose a gag law like British Columbia's and Quebec's since 1983, with the support of the three old-line parties: the Liberals, the Conservatives and the socialists. It's lost twice in the intermediate-level courts, but the Supreme Court decision that struck down Quebec's $ 600 limit indicated pretty strongly that a slightly higher limit -- the court proposed the figure of $ 1,000 -- would be constitutional for both federal and provincial governments. For politicians who believe, with Neuborne and senators McCain and Feingold, that controlled speech is good speech, it was a welcome green light.

Canadian governments so disdain the right of private citizens to have a say in the elections that choose their rulers that they have invented a marvelous phrase for those who try. The law calls them "third-party intervenors." The political parties, you see, are the principals. Private citizens who try to have an influence on their own with any device more sophisticated than a graffiti spraycan or a sandwich board are interlopers, "third parties," meddling where they do not belong. This is the path down which American campaign reformers would take the United States -- a path toward a two-class political system. At the top would be the politicians and the media, who may say whatever they please. At the bottom would be everyone else, whose rights to comment on their electoral choices would be regulated and circumscribed.

Over the years, the right of free speech has taken on a strange and even rococo shape in the United States. But at the very same time that it has been twisted and stretched to cover activities that are only remotely speech-like, its core value -- the right of citizens to make their voices heard when it's time to decide who will govern them -- has come under assault. What kind of free speech right can be understood as guaranteeing government money for smearing your naked body with chocolate on stage, but not your right to take out an ad in the newspaper saying "Joe Smith says he loves the environment but he voted to pave Yellowstone"?

The senators who support McCain-Feingold profess to care about free speech. They say they are protecting it. But the law they've written frankly jettisons the right to speak during an election, in order to make workable the law's otherwise ramshackle and futile latticework of restrictions, regulations, and general bossiness. If McCain-Feingold should ever pass, the right of Americans to speak their minds about the governance of their country, a bedrock right if there ever was one, will depend on the forbearance and good sense of the regulators of electoral speech. And as Gary Nixon can tell you, that's not a position the citizens of a democracy should ever find themselves in.

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.