Obama Violates the First Amendment

September 26, 2009

Famous Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once stated, “I am for the First Amendment from the first word to the last. I believe it means what it says.”  In part, what it says is that, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.”  To prove how serious the authors of the Bill of Rights were about this indispensible freedom, they gave Americans the ability to defend the right by force if necessary in the very next Amendment.  Even given the historic support from the High Court for the First Amendment and the means to defend it given by the Founders, this past week the Obama Administration violated its oath to uphold the Constitution by issuing a decree abridging the First Amendment right to speech.

In a memo to private health insurers from a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) the Obama Administration issued a decree ordering them to stop informing Medicare beneficiaries that health reform legislation before Congress could hurt them and curtail their benefits if enacted.  The memo went on to say that the government might take legal action against insurers that are mobilizing opposition to the legislation by sending “misleading and confusing” messages to seniors. 

Say what you will about insurance companies, this is by no means a defense of them.  It is instead a rebuke of an administration that is playing fast and loose with basic rights guaranteed to all Americans, including corporations.  In the United States, corporations are separate legal entities that retain the same rights as individuals.  Humana, the company whose letters to clients prompted the decree from HHS, has as much right to speak out for or against federal legislation as I do.  Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court have no power to abridge Humana’s right to free speech.  Obama should know this given that he is a constitutional lawyer.

Secondly, the decree smacks of fascism.  Corporations do not exist in America to serve the interests of the state.  Obama has this collectivist mindset, a lot like the previous administration, “you are for us or against us.”  Any discord with the Administration’s positions and you may find yourself threatened with legal action.  Perhaps the President is confused.  Maybe he has let his takeover and running of GM, Chrysler, and AIG cloud his vision and he now thinks that he can dictate the terms of existence for all American companies.  Unfortunately, few members of his own party have expressed any discomfort with the decree.  In fact, Democratic Senator Max Baucus has urged HHS to crack down on the mailings.  In addition to a government that is not listening to the people, now we have one that is also attempting to stifle the peoples’ dissent.

Of course, attempting to litigate any company that disobeyed the gag order would end in defeat for the Administration.  There is no precedence for restricting speech against government legislation.  Even inaccurate or misleading speech is protected.  But, to top it all off, the information Humana peddled to seniors was actually accurate.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill released last week in the Senate by Baucus would cut payments to Medicare Advantage plans by about $139 billion over 10 years.  Certainly this represents a significant chunk of change and would result in reduced benefits for seniors.  If the Humana information was misleading, at least Obama could look like he was standing against deceit and chicanery.  This would be somewhat admirable.  But because the information is true, he simply looks like a despot.

In 1906, Evelyn Beatrice Hall said, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.”  Taking the presidential oath of office to defend the Constitution is equivalent to Hall’s statement.  But, with the current president, he apparently has no problem not only shirking his duty but violating it.  It’s no wonder his approval rating continues to drop and Americans are taking to the streets in the millions to protest his policies.  After all, Americans are not asking Obama to give his life for free speech just to respect it even when it disagrees with his policies.

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Ballot Access Laws are Detrimental to America

April 26, 2009

This past week a panel of judges in North Carolina heard the appeal of a 2005 case filed by the state’s Libertarian Party over its loss of ballot access following the 2004 elections.  Even though the Libertarians have regained ballot status the suit has gone forward on behalf of other minor parties still struggling to meet ballot access requirements.  The North Carolina election law in question requires political parties not officially recognized (non-Republican and non-Democrat) by the state to gather signatures equaling 2 percent of those who cast votes in the previous gubernatorial election.  For the 2012 ballot, 80,000 signatures of registered voters will be required by minor parties just to get on the ballot.  The basis of the suit is the Libertarian Party’s claim that the $130,000 they spent and the three years it took them to acquire the signatures put an unfair, unconstitutional burden on their efforts to effectively run candidates for public office.  Given that Republicans and Democrats do not have to jump these same hurdles to achieve ballot access the Libertarians are right.

Defending the state’s law was deputy attorney general of North Carolina, Alexander Peters.  He argued that the state’s ballot access restrictions on minor parties are reasonable.  According to Mr. Peters, “The very fact the Libertarians were able to gain access proved the point that getting on the ballot was not impossible for third parties, even if it was costly and time consuming.”  Furthermore, he added that, “The larger the ballot, the greater the potential for errors and complications.” His argument was that allowing third parties to increase their numbers would complicate the administration of elections.  He did assure the court that there would probably always be at least two parties in the state.

Of course, North Carolina is not unique in having restrictive ballot access laws.  Most states have them.  However, because of his remarks, Alexander Peters is not fit to be an attorney general of any state.  His argument is offensive, not based on constitutional law, and worthy of the tyrannical gibberish usually uttered by the Mugabes and Chavezes of the world.  For him to declare that conducting elections with minimal problems is more important than guaranteeing the civil rights of American citizens is preposterous.  Do states not administer welfare programs, education systems, and driver’s licenses?  We never hear that the millions of people served by these bureaucracies complicate the work of the state to the point where it shouldn’t provide those services anymore.  Why should the most basic function of our government, namely an electoral system, be so demeaned?    After all, aren’t the results of free and fair elections supposed to determine the policies our government will pursue? 

Additionally, Mr. Peters’ remarks are an offense to every American soldier who fought in Iraq.  Many fought and many died instituting democracy in that country.  At election time, Iraqis have close to 20 parties on the ballot to choose from, but our troops come home and usually have only a choice between two.  Given that both major American parties supported the war in Iraq that means they didn’t really have a say in whether they went to war or not.  The decision was made for them by our corrupt electoral system.  Certainly, if the Iraqi electoral system can conduct elections with 20 political parties participating than any state in our union can do at least the same.

At the end of the day, ballot access laws are detrimental to our political system for at least four reasons.  First off, they discourage political participation of the citizenry.  How many times have we heard I am not voting because it is a choice between “the lesser of two evils”?  Many folks feel the two major parties are just different sides of the same coin.  Usually one is for a 20 percent increase in the size of government and the other offers a 15 percent increase.  One is for invading a country while the other prefers covert, clandestine actions.  Both take few precautions when it comes to taking our rights away.  And neither has been averse to giving trillions of our dollars to big bankers.  There are a huge number of Americans who feel disenfranchised by the system.  That is a big reason why voter turnout is usually low.

Ballot access laws are detrimental to our political system because they are anti-democratic.  They can only be defended with anti-democratic rhetoric like that spoken by Alexander Peters.  Now I understand that we live in a republic.  But, our republic is based on the essence of democracy – a government in which the people have a voice in the exercise of political power.  How can discriminating against allegedly minor views through ballot access laws be justified in our system?  It is placing a greater importance on the views of some at the expense of others.  Current polls indicate that between 10-20 percent of Americans identify themselves as libertarians.  Probably a large chunk of Americans are at the opposite end of the spectrum – socialist.  By restricting ballot access or at the very least placing high hurdles in the way of minor parties state governments silence the voice of many in pursuit of their right under democracy.

Thirdly, ballot access laws are just plain unconstitutional.  North Carolina’s law violates both the free speech clause of the state’s constitution and the First Amendment right to free speech of the federal constitution.  When minor parties, like the Libertarian party in 2005, cannot meet ballot access requirements voices are silenced and rights are violated.  Additionally, the U.S. Constitution guarantees “equal protection” under the law to each American.  How can Republican and Democratic candidates for office not be required to jump through the same hoops as minor party candidates and it is considered equal under the law?

Lastly, ballot access laws have contributed to the formation of our elite political class.  By lessening competition to the point where only Republicans and Democrats get elected there is of course no one left to administer the election laws but Republicans and Democrats.  What a monopoly and conflict of interest this is.  If the Republicans and Democrats were corporations they would be investigated for anti-trust violations.  The best example of this happened last August in Texas when both John McCain and Barack Obama failed to meet the filing deadline to get on the ballot – neither man had even been nominated by their respective party by the deadline.  Did they have to file a lawsuit to challenge the law?  No, it was simply overturned by the secretary of state of Texas.  Meanwhile, Libertarian party candidate Bob Barr was spending thousands of dollars and hours fighting six states over ballot access.

Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”  To be sure, democracy requires hard work and due diligence.  For a society to thrive, all voices should be heard.  Ballot access laws that discriminate against minor political parties should be abolished to recover and then ensure our prosperity.