Political campaigns are sweeping exercises of our First Amendment rights. The bigger the race, the more important those rights become.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., takes the opposite approach. As Nevada’s U.S. Senate race ramps up, Rep. Berkley is trying to limit protected expression that could affect her challenge to incumbent Republican Dean Heller.
On Wednesday, Rep. Berkley demanded that Sen. Heller sign an entirely unenforceable agreement to halt outside groups such as super PACs from engaging in political speech related to their race. Such groups already have made a big impact on the GOP presidential nominating process, and were deeply involved in Nevada’s 2010 gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races — largely through attack ads.
"We should not rely on secretive, outside third-party organizations to do the dirty work," she said. "Elections should be decided by the votes of the many, not the money of a few."
Earlier this month, Rep. Berkley attempted to squeeze political points and a fundraising advantage from the Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke contraception controversy by launching a petition to have the conservative talk radio personality taken off the air. The First Amendment was written to protect even the most offensive expression from government penalty. The boorish nature of Mr. Limbaugh’s remarks notwithstanding, having a seven-term member of Congress actively work to silence someone she disagrees with is an affront to the founding principles of this nation.
Especially in the political arena, no one in government should have the power to play gatekeeper to those who wish to spread a particular message. Campaigns are supposed to engage the public and inspire vigorous debate. That’s why, two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that the First Amendment prohibits officials from stopping or limiting political expenditures by corporations, unions and other entities. This ruling cleared the way for political action committees to collect and spend large amounts of money on political speech, provided they function without involvement from candidates for office. Contrary to Rep. Berkley’s claims, they are not secretive. In fact, they are quite transparent in disclosing donors.
Many times in meetings with the Review-Journal’s editorial board, Rep. Berkley, an attorney, has spoken about the importance of the rule of law and the rights enshrined in the Constitution. Now she thinks she’s putting herself on the high road by demonizing the law of the land and those who exercise their First Amendment rights. Her hypocrisy is astounding. Rep. Berkley’s campaign responded to Mr. Limbaugh’s vile name-calling by labeling Sen. Heller a "waterboy" for the radio host. Now, fearful of being outspent, she wants Sen. Heller to join her in blocking political speech that, by law, they can’t control.
With each passing week, Rep. Berkley shows herself increasingly unworthy of a seat in the Senate, and she demonstrates why voters have such low regard for Congress as a whole. Washington faces critical challenges, foremost among them an uncertain tax climate, a ballooning national debt and crushing entitlement liabilities. Rep. Berkley needs to address these issues, not continue distracting us from them.