The United States Senate is considering an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that could have serious repercussions for First Amendment freedoms. While proponents of the amendment are lauding it as a move toward campaign finance reform, Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, President & CEO of NRB, called it “convoluted” and “unacceptable,” and warned it would be “detrimental to liberty and equality, preparing the way for the government to prefer one voice over another – or to suppress one voice under another.”
NRB is not alone in its alarm at this proposal. In a hearing on the constitutional amendment this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the top Republican on the panel, laid out a powerful case against the amendment starting with the foundational principles of unalienable rights found in the Declaration of Independence. He emphasized, “The Bill of Rights protects individual rights regardless of whether the government or a majority approves of their use.” Regarding the subject of the hearing, Senator Grassley stated:
Today, freedom of speech is threatened as it has not been in many decades. Too many people are impatient and will not listen and debate and persuade. They want to punish, intimidate, and silence those with whom they disagree…. S.J. Res. 19, cut from the same cloth, would amend the Constitution for the first time to diminish an important right of Americans that is contained in the Bill of Rights. In fact, it would cut back on the most important of these rights, core free speech about who should be elected to govern ourselves.
Similarly, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) was outspoken in opposition to this effort. In a Wall Street Journal editorial warning of the free speech threats of this bill, Senator Cruz declared, “The contemplated amendment is simply wrong. No politician should be immune from criticism. Congress has too much power already—it should never have the power to silence citizens.” He concluded, “Sen. Ted Kennedy was right to say: ‘In the entire history of the Constitution, we have never amended the Bill of Rights, and now is no time to start.’”
This week’s hearing was significant not only because of the subject matter, but also due to the rare presence of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on the same panel to testify for and against the constitutional amendment. Senator Reid declared, “a constitutional amendment is what this nation needs to bring sanity back to political campaigns and restore Americans’ confidence in their elected leaders….Free speech shouldn’t cost the American voter a dime.” However, Senator McConnell countered, “[T]he political nature of this exercise should not obscure how shockingly bad this proposal is. When it comes to free speech, we shouldn’t substitute the incumbent-protection desires of politicians for the protection the Constitution guarantees to all Americans.”
Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) last summer introduced this proposed constitutional amendment (S.J.Res.19). Thus far, 43 Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, have stated public support for this bill. Amendments to the U.S. Constitution require 2/3 support in both the House and the Senate, and then ratification by 3/4 of the States.
In a letter to the Chairman and to the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dr. Johnson wrote, “[T]his political exercise could be starting a dangerous proceeding – one which may well ultimately call into question the basic First Amendment freedoms of all Americans. The text of this proposed Constitutional Amendment is unacceptable, and I urge you to reject any attempt to advance it.”