At the recent debate between Democrat Mike Arcuri and Republican Ray Meier in Oneonta, both congressional candidates stepped over the line in their push to control negative campaign advertisements. Both Ray Meier and Michael Arcuri said that they want the law to be changed so that candidates will have the ability to control what other people say about the campaigns.
We've seen a lot of negative campaign commercials this year, including commercials against Michael Arcuri accusing him of using public money to pay for calls to telephone sex numbers, and commercials accusing Ray Meier of beign responsible for high taxes. (Yes, for Republicans, taxation is equally as tawdry as phone sex.)
The thing is that these commercials have been produced and paid for by organizations other than the candidates' own campaign committees. So, Michael Arcuri and Ray Meier haven't had a darned thing to do with them. That's what campaign finance laws require. If there's coordination with the candidate that the commercials appear to support, then the financial backing of the commercials, and the organization that produces them, become subject to campaign finance regulation. Negative advertisements become, in this way, a way for powerful organizations and individuals to exercise influence over an election.
That's not an ideal situation, to be sure. However, the alternative arrangement that Mike Arcuri and Ray Meier support would be much worse.
Ray Meier and Michael Arcuri don't like it that they don't have control over public messages about this race for Congress. So what? I'm sure Wal-Mart doesn't like it when outside organizations criticize its corporate practices. Wal-Mart would like to control the public messages about its operations, but the public safety would be put at risk if such control were allowed. The same would be true if candidates were allowed to control the public messages other groups spread about political campaigns.
Free speech gives us each the right to criticize or praise whichever politicians we choose. There are some restrictions on non-profit organizations that receive tax-exempt status, but that's only because those organizations are, in effect, given a special privileged status by the government. If those organizations wish to give up that status, then they are free to communicate about political campaigns in any way they want to.
If politicians like Michael Arcuri and Ray Meier were given the power to approve or reject the broadcast of messages about the races for public office in which they are running, we wouldn't hear anything negative about any candidates at all. Why would a political candidate allow any negative advertisement about themselves to be broadcast, if they had the power to stop it? Don't think that the candidate power to censor advertisements would be restricted to negative advertisements against their opponents.
For that matter, if candidates were given the power to censor negative television or radio advertisements, what would stop them from trying to exercise this power over other media as well? What would stop Ray Meier and Michael Arcuri from claiming the power to approve or deny any given article I write for this blog?
Besides, we would be naive to believe that Arcuri and Meier really want to eliminate negative advertising. The separation between candidates' own advertisements and the the advertisements created by unaffiliated organizations allows candidates to play the Good Cop/Bad Cop game. Arcuri and Meier say that outside groups are ruining the campaign for them by going negative, and get to take on the pose of virtuous indignation. At the same time, they benefit from the persuasive power of those negative advertisements, and they know it.
Besides, what is a "negative advertisement" but a criticism of a political candidate? Do we really believe that the electoral process would become pure and refined if criticism of political candidates were outlawed?
Michael Arcuri and Ray Meier both ought to be ashamed of themselves for requesting the power to censor what other people say about this race for a seat in Congress. They're condescending to voters, as if we're fragile children who have never heard or participated in a harsh argument.
Everyone should be free to say what they want to about congressional candidates, so long as they don't engage in libel or slander. We voters are, after all, adults. Let us stop playing the game of pretending that we have virgin ears.