Campaign finance reform law should focus on money, not speech

When Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., penned the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, they addressed a major problem with financing elections: large, unregulated “soft money” contributions to political parties from big corporations, political action committees and wealthy individuals. But while putting an end to these kinds of contributions, the law also prevents certain types of advertising during the campaign season – a provision that unconstitutionally restricts free speech.

“Soft money” gives an unfair advantage to candidates of large national parties and gives corporations and the wealthy excessive influence and control in politics. The McCain-Feingold act helps protect the elections process and evens the playing field considerably.

However, the Supreme Court should strike down the part of the law that applies to political advertising because it restricts the free speech of political organizations. Under the McCain-Feingold act, it is illegal for political organizations – even nonpartisan ones like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association – to broadcast so-called “issue” advertisements during the campaign season. These television commercials technically are not supposed to support or oppose a candidate but often have the effect of doing so.

Even if the ads influence their audience to vote a particular way, it is unfair to ban them during the campaign season. Unless the ads are false, it should be legal to broadcast them, even within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

Reforming campaign financing is important to maintaining the integrity of the U.S. political system. But when addressing advertising, lawmakers should remember free speech is a right that maintains the integrity of the country itself.