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W.Va. must protect, not curb, political speech

It is astonishing how many people who run for elected office do not understand, much less

support, the fundamental American freedoms they pledge to uphold.

Such was the case when Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold decided that the country needed to stop some Americans from criticizing politicians before an election.

This is such a blatant violation of the right to free speech that it's shocking that politicians dare to suggest it. Yet Congress passed the McCain-Feingold act and President George W. Bush signed it.

The law prohibited corporations and unions from using their general treasuries to fund "electioneering communications" — broadcast spots — mentioning a candidate within 30 days before a primary election or 60 days before a general election.

That is precisely when Americans most need to comment on those who would run their lives.

Only by a frighteningly narrow margin did the U.S. Supreme Court hold in the Citizens United case that it is unconstitutional to ban free speech by limiting independent statements sponsored by corporations, associations and unions.

Wikipedia's summation will do: "The majority argued that the First Amendment protects associations of individuals in addition to individual speakers, and further that the First Amendment does not allow prohibitions of speech based on the identity of the speaker."

That should have ended the attempt by West Virginia's dominant political party to suppress speech about itself as well, but it wasn't.

West Virginia politicians had passed a law that

limited contributions to independent political action committees to $1,000.

The state law defines independent expenditures as "expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate, and that are not made in concert or cooperation with or at the request or suggestion of such candidate, his or her agents, the candidate's authorized political committee or a political

party committee or its agents."

Last year, U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston approved a preliminary injunction that prevented the state from enforcing laws that suppress independent political speech. This week, attorneys for the secretary of state and the political action committee that brought the suit agreed that state laws limiting independent contributions are unconstitutional.

Johnston must approve the proposed agreement.

Assuming he does, federal or state politicians should never again try to shut up the people they work for. It's un-American, and the electorate knows it.


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