Friday, September 17, 2004

Let's Deep Six the 527 Loophole
We've been telling you a lot about the problems of big money in politics. Now, we're giving you a chance to do something about it.

You've probably heard the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” say John Kerry doesn’t deserve all of his Vietnam War medals. Now “Texans for Truth” say that George Bush didn’t fulfill his National Guard service requirements. 

The rest of us say: “Enough already! We’re sick and tired of big money funding divisive attacks.”

No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, you are likely disgusted with the negative ads being paid for by big money players to attack George W. Bush and John Kerry. If you’re a Republican, you’ve seen liberal groups spend millions of dollars to attack the President -- money that he says was raised illegally. If you’re a Democrat, you’ve seen ads sponsored by 527s take John Kerry down several points in the polls. If you’re a fair-minded independent, you’re fed up with big money on both sides and wish the race would get back to the real issues of the day.

President Bush has joined John McCain in calling for an end to the current evasions of campaign finance law being done by these electioneering groups. John Kerry says he sponsored legislation in congress that would have closed the 527 loophole. 

That’s a good start, but the rest of us aren’t waiting around hoping that whoever wins will really clean up the system. We’re calling on Congress and the Federal Elections Commission to close the 527 loophole and make the fat cat donors play by the same rules that candidates, political parties, and political action committees live by.

Visit our website to sign our petition to DEEP SIX THE 527 LOOPHOLE. Then, forward this on to your friends to help us get the word out.

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Published in The Missoulian- 9/15/2004...

Aaron Flint
Broadcast Journalism Student, Former ASUM President
Guest Opinion Column
Flint v. Dennison

Special Interests Continue to Dominate UM’s Campus

Outside special interest groups are pouring millions of dollars into the 2004 presidential campaign, attacking candidates of both parties. Organizations like Moveon.org can spend an unlimited amount of money attacking President Bush, and organizations like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth can spend unlimited amounts attacking Senator Kerry. But imagine if Bush and Kerry were not able to effectively respond to these attacks.

Imagine a political environment where outside special interest groups can spend unlimited amounts of money pushing their agenda, and individuals campaigning for office have their speech effectively cut off through a spending limit. This is the political environment at The University of Montana.

Thanks to an unprecedented decision by Missoula’s US District Judge Don Molloy in August, it likely will stay that way until a free speech case reaches a higher court.

Here’s a little background. A one hundred dollar expenditure limit for student government elections had been in place at The University of California-Irvine until a federal judge ruled it a violation of the First Amendment. The University of Montana still has this regulation in place. I challenged it first legislatively- gained a majority in support of changing the regulation, but failed to garner the two-thirds necessary.

What is the result of this extremely low spending limit? Status quo special interests groups and UM administrators can effectively silence anyone who questions them. By stifling speech, the university can silence dissent and prevent diversity in student government. The university is supposed to be a marketplace of ideas; instead it is turning into a breadline with an agenda.

To continue representing students and to challenge this regulation, I ran for a student senate seat, campaigning to more than 13,000 students. That’s a higher number of constituents to communicate with than a state legislator in Montana.

During my campaign, leaders from two left-wing special interest groups on campus ran negative attack ads against me- with no spending limit, just as the Swift Boat Veterans and moveon.org have against Kerry and Bush respectively. After breaking the unconstitutional spending limit in an act of civil disobedience, I was not allowed to take office. So I teamed up with The James Madison Center for Free Speech and filed suit in federal court.

Even if you like the idea of expenditure limits, keep this in mind: the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 1976, Buckley v. Valeo, stated that campaign expenditure limits are a violation of core First Amendment rights. Several other Circuit Courts have also ruled against campaign expenditure limits. A federal judge in the same circuit as Judge Molloy stood by the legitimacy of student governance and ruled against spending limits.

How the university argued its case should be even more alarming to advocates of free speech and freedom of the press. UM administrators are not arguing that spending limits are constitutional; they understand spending limits would not be allowed in any other election. Instead, they argue that student government isn’t really government- it is first and foremost an educational opportunity. This could drastically impact the ability for Montana news organizations to demand a presence in important meetings between administrators and student government leaders.

Judge Molloy’s decision also refused to recognize a difference between high schools and universities with regard to the First Amendment. Judge Molloy cited Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier in his decision, saying that administrators in state institutions can exclude First Amendment rights. Hazelwood is a case that allowed high school administrators to censor the school newspaper. Molloy’s decision opens up the door for administrative censorship of school newspapers at Montana universities.

James Bopp, Jr., General Counsel for the James Madison Center for Free Speech pointed out that no other federal court has applied the deferential standard to university student government campaign expenditure limits. “In fact, the Supreme Court hasn’t applied it in college or university settings at all, and has explained that the college and university setting is different from high school, where concerns about the students age, maturity, and tendency to attribute views to the school itself make control over speech more palatable,” said Bopp. “Moreover no federal court has applied the standard to campaign spending limits, which the Supreme Court has said are direct limits on core First Amendment rights.”

In the face of drastic tuition and fee increases, students need student government that is recognized as a legitimate entity- not simply an academic exercise. I am willing to continue this fight, even if it means opening myself up to more personal attacks from administrators.

Maybe it doesn’t concern readers that UM has an unconstitutional election law that wouldn’t be allowed in any other election. Maybe it doesn’t concern readers that Judge Molloy’s decision allows for censorship of university student governments and newspapers. Maybe it doesn’t concern readers that reporters may not be allowed into meetings between students and administrators.

In response to the legislative fiasco over UM’s Environmental Studies Department, former Commissioner of Higher Education Dick Crofts said, “Any institution with an $800 million dollar budget should have a chance to be scrutinized.”

The fact that a taxpayer funded institution is trying to shelter itself from scrutiny by excluding First Amendment rights in student government should concern readers.

Aaron Flint
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