The Corner

McCAIN AND FREE SPEECH

Some conservatives are criticizing the senator for saying, on the Imus show two weeks ago, “I would rather have a clean government than one where quote First Amendment rights are being respected that has become corrupt. If I had my choice, I’d rather have the clean government.” I’m no fan of McCain’s campaign-finance regulations, or of his vote several years ago for a constitutional amendment to modify the First Amendment to facilitate such regulations, or his remark a few years ago that he would outlaw negative ads if he could find a constitutional way to do it. And that past colors our reception of this latest quote, as it should. But considered by itself, it doesn’t seem quite so outrageous as it is being described. Presumably the reference to “quote First Amendment rights” was meant to suggest that McCain doesn’t believe that his preferred political reforms implicate real First Amendment rights. He wasn’t expressing disdain for the First Amendment as he understands it, but disagreement about what the First Amendment means. Conservatives (especially in the past) have often advanced narrower readings of the First Amendment’s speech protection than liberals, and would have been annoyed by the charge that they were therefore against the First Amendment.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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