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Well, shut my mouth!

| Monday, Nov. 28, 2005

A cold front is blowing in from Washington State. Calling it "chilling" does not do it justice. It should send a shudder down the spine of anyone who still believes in the First Amendment.

Two Seattle radio talk hosts had the nerve to say how they felt about an issue and then to offer more than lip service.

Their rants against a gas tax increase, as well as their efforts to raise money and circulate petitions, were determined to be in-kind contributions by a local judge, who recently reaffirmed his earlier ruling.

That meant the radio station had to put a dollar value on what the hosts had said. The estimate of that in-kind contribution of $100,000 of airtime was reported as a campaign donation under state law.

In other words -- in the name of campaign finance "reform" -- free speech no longer is free. If that ruling withstands appeal, especially if it reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, it would have profound ramifications for media nationwide.

This issue is about more than two talk hosts who dared to exercise their right of free speech more than they should have, at least according to the government. As with most issues, the devil is in the premise, not the details.

If this ruling is not struck down, anytime anyone in the media (including the Internet) decides to speak out on an issue, it could be considered an in-kind contribution.

And if federal or state election laws limit the amount of money that can be donated to candidates or causes, the mere mention of an opinion could be estimated (by the government) to be worth the maximum dollar amount allowed to be contributed and thereby prohibit any other reference regarding the subject.

Everything will be fair game if the government, federal or state, disapproves of an editorial, talk show or blog.

If this scenario seems ridiculously implausible, think back to the free speech-rationing McCain-Feingold bill that essentially muzzled millions of Americans by placing strict limits on when the public could exercise its right of free speech. This was all in the name of limiting the appearance of undue influence in politics.

The thought that this brazen attempt place a gag on the First Amendment would ever be passed by Congress was laughable. Well, at least to some of us civil libertarians.

The thought that the compassionate conservative president actually would sign it was even more laughable.

And even if he did, that a Supreme Court actually would rule in its favor, thereby ruling that parts of the First Amendment were unconstitutional, well, it was beyond implausible.

And yet, that's what happened. And if McCain and others get their way, there could be new legislation further rationing free speech to limit the First Amendment rights of the 527 nonprofit groups.

When the government -- and that means politicians who will do whatever they can get away with to preserve and increase their political power -- wants to silence its critics, it will do so.

But unlike in a dictatorship, it will be done very subtly, bit by bit, all in the name of reform, good government, cleaning up politics or whatever else a gullible citizenry will swallow.

Allow politicians to put a price on free speech and then keep your mouth shut when you discover it's more than you can afford.

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