Once More, With Feeling: Campaign Finance Doesn’t Supersede the Constitution

Here we go again, with another use of campaign finance law to manufacture a controversy at the expense of the First Amendment:

Rhode Island Republican gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung promoted his candidacy on an hourlong radio infomercial that’s hosted by a lobbyist for the trucking industry, and campaign records reviewed by The Associated Press show he failed to report the donation of radio air time.

The failure is likely to have violated campaign finance law, according to the good government group Common Cause.

Fung appeared Aug. 4 on the show “Changing Gears,” which is hosted by Chris Maxwell, a registered lobbyist who is CEO of the industry group the Rhode Island Trucking Association, and Michael Collins, of M&D Transportation, a trucking company. The show airs Saturdays on WPRO-AM, one of Rhode Island’s main news radio stations, but the show opens with a disclaimer that makes clear it is paid programming and not news.

The Associated Press can call this an “infomercial,” but that’s misleading.  This is an alternate business model for radio shows, wherein the host pays for a regular period of time and, if he or she desires, covers that expense with advertising.  Infomercials are just extended advertisements for a product.

Appearing on “Changing Gears” is no less covered by the First Amendment than appearing on a radio show with, say, Dan Yorke and cannot be treated differently just because that the hosts aren’t paid directly by the radio station. Paid radio hosts and journalist are not a privileged class deserving of special treatment when it comes to their speech.

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To amplify the point, here’s one of Fung’s primary opponents, Patricia Morgan on Dan Yorke, appearing with a person a chicken costume in order to mock Fung.

In yesterday’s WPRO debate for the Republican candidates, they actually put Allan Fung’s name on an empty chair with a micorophone, which could easily be construed as negative advertising, criticizing the candidate for not appearing in the debate.  This is all well and good (and, for the record, I agree that Fung should have participated in the debate and should be more readily available, generally).

It is not, however, constitutionally different from the hosts of a paid timeslot having on a candidate as a guest.  If somebody would like to argue that reporting the value of airtime is not a limit or restriction on speech, then it should be applied to all forms of media.

For practical and principled reasons, though, the better solution is to stop attempting to corral people’s free speech.  That will include, in part, giving up our belief that people are too dumb to learn how to assess the credibility of their sources of information.

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