Feedback on the April 9 issue: trusting government (“again?”), Katha Pollitt’s plea to affluent pro-choicers and Burt Neuborne’s open letter to the ACLU


Long Ago and Far Away, We Trusted It

Washington, D.C.

I applaud the April 9 special issue, rallying progressives to defend New Deal liberalism and modern civil rights laws. However, the headline asked: “Can We Trust Government Again?” The obvious reply is: “What do you mean, Again?”



Probe-able Cause

Boulder, Colo.

Katha Pollitt’s April 9 “Subject to Debate” column, imploring affluent women to help poor women pay for abortions, brings up a little-known aspect of the anti-abortion strategy: not only will women be forced to have unwanted and unprescribed internal examinations; they will be forced to pay for them. This recalls Europe’s satanic witch-hunting craze (1400–1700), in which women were forced to pay to be tortured and burned at the stake for male-defined crimes, including flying, eating babies and kissing Satan’s tushy.



Renton, Wash.

An all-woman panel has announced that all males must be circumcised. The panel also decrees that anesthesia is too costly. Also, any male with 2.5 or more children will undergo a vasectomy. Again, anesthesia will not be provided. —The Women



Sheridan, Mont.

I have solutions to the contraception/abortion problem: (1) castrate every 16-year-old male; (2) send any older male caught with Viagra to prison; and (3) probe him in his privates—it just sounds like a good idea.



The ACLU & Political $peech

New York City

We always like getting mail from our esteemed friend and former colleague Burt Neuborne, but in his criticism of our stance on the Citizens United decision [“Open Letter to the ACLU,” April 9], we think his stance is on a dangerously slippery slope.

Trying to make the case for reconciling the tenets of the First Amendment with expenditure limits on campaign finance, Neuborne points to a “compelling interest in equality” he claims would justify preventing rich people from buying speech in various contexts. But this approach invites the government to be in the business of determining which political speech is legitimate and which should be squelched. Forget the slippery slope. If we sign on to that notion, we’ll have already fallen off the mountain.

Neuborne contends that speech bankrolled by a wealthy donor should be regarded as not being “pure” speech because it might have an undesirable impact on people’s views. But speech doesn’t stop being speech depending on who is speaking or how much. Of course, the ACLU is not immune to the anxiety many people, including Neuborne, have about the integrity of our electoral process and the influence of money on politics. However, there are better ways to address those concerns than a scheme that empowers the government to determine who gets to speak and for how long.

Like Neuborne, we want to expand the marketplace of political ideas and discourse. However, we would achieve that with a comprehensive system of public financing of elections that would create a level playing field and not force politicians to start dialing for dollars as soon as the polls have closed on the last election. Decreasing the supply of money expended on political speech by government fiat is not the answer. Cash will always find a way to flow through loopholes. Reducing the demand for cash is a more promising approach.

We can have meaningful regulation without abandoning our First Amendment principles. The ACLU backs reasonable limits on campaign contributions—by individuals and corporations alike—as well as suitable disclosure rules that promote transparency so we know who is funding political speech.

Neuborne argues that we should nevertheless be willing to compromise our First Amendment principles to accomplish the desired result (less speech by certain people or corporations) because real solutions to the confluence of money and politics, like public financing and meaningful disclosure rules, are unlikely to be adopted in today’s political climate. Yes, there are systematic flaws that have indeed become a plague on our political system. But limits on speech itself will only magnify those flaws and make them worse.

SUSAN HERMAN, president
American Civil Liberties Union


Neuborne Replies

New York City

It’s never fun to disagree with a friend like Susan Herman, but I fear that she (and the rest of the ACLU’s current leadership) is suffering from a bad case of Skokie syndrome. In Skokie, the ACLU stood firm in favor of free speech for Nazis. It was an iconic moment, and the ACLU was right. Censorship of speech on the basis of content is never—and I mean never—permissible under the First Amendment. But that doesn’t mean that every government effort to limit the power of the superrich to turn elections into auctions also violates the First Amendment.

In the first place, restrictions on the amount of money very wealthy people can spend on buying public office have nothing to do with censoring on the basis of content. The rules would apply to all rich folks—George Soros and Sheldon Adelson alike—regardless of who they support.

Second, if the Nazis wanted to march through Skokie all day, all the time, I’ll bet the ACLU would have supported a limit on the decibel level and repetitive nature of the speech. It’s one thing to assure that someone’s message has a chance to be heard; it’s another to guarantee someone the unlimited power to repeat the message louder and louder until it drowns out everyone else.

Third, Susan Herman makes no effort to defend the ACLU’s incomprehensible insistence that huge multi-shareholder corporations have a First Amendment right to pour unlimited funds into the electoral process. The last time I looked, corporations lacked the attributes of conscience and human dignity needed to support such a First Amendment right. Please tell me, Susan, how limiting the First Amendment to human beings puts us on a slippery slope to anything but a return to sanity.

Finally, I’d have more sympathy for the ACLU’s claim to be in favor of public funding of elections if the organization had sought to defend Arizona’s excellent matching plan from invalidation by the usual 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court. Norman Dorsen and I were there defending the plan. Where was the ACLU?

In fact, it’s the ACLU that’s trapped on a slippery slope. The organization appears terrified of moving away from an absolutist position opposing campaign finance reform because it fears government abuse. So do I. But by opposing virtually all regulation of spending by the very rich, the ACLU position leaves our democracy vulnerable to massive private abuse by the very rich. Face it, guys, there is no escape from risk in this world. To my mind, the risk posed by control of our politics by the 1 percent is far greater than any risk posed by thoughtful campaign finance reform.


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