Illinois legislators try to repeal the First Amendment

March 22, 2014
By Jacob Huebert

Incumbent politicians hate to be criticized, and in Illinois some of them have decided to do something about it – not by correcting the behavior for which people criticize them, but by trying to repeal the First Amendment.

That may sound outrageous, but it’s true.

On Thursday, the Illinois Senate’s Executive Committee passed a resolution by a vote of 11-4 that calls for a constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

The Citizens United decision simply held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from limiting anyone’s independent political speech. The court held that, although the government can place certain limits on campaign contributions, it cannot limit how much someone spends independently to speak (or write) about a candidate or political issues.

And that makes perfect sense. If the right to free speech means anything, it must mean that you are free to speak as much as you want, as long as you’re spending your own money.

Incumbent officeholders don’t like that, though, because they would rather not face unlimited criticism.

This sentiment is shared by party leaders on both sides of the aisle in Illinois. This week alone, Senate President John Cullerton co-sponsored the Senate resolution, while House Minority Leader Jim Durkin lashed out against independent groups and said they should face greater legal restrictions.

It’s not surprising that Cullerton and Durkin in particular would feel that way. Along with House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, they are the only people in the state who are legally allowed to direct as much money as they want to the political campaigns of their choosing, through the political parties and “legislative caucus committees” they control. Everyone else in Illinois is limited in how much they can give by the campaign-contribution caps the General Assembly passed in 2009.

It’s a great system for maintaining the party leaders’ power and for protecting incumbent officeholders from challengers. Because incumbents have inherent advantages from being in office, it takes a lot of money to unseat them – so even a scheme that places the same restrictions on everyone is actually biased in favor of incumbents.

The only “weaknesses” in this incumbent-protection scheme come from the First Amendment, which doesn’t allow the government to limit how much of his own money a candidate spends, or how much independent groups spend to support or oppose a candidate.

No wonder they want to repeal the First Amendment.

The Liberty Justice Center, however, thinks that no one should be limited in their political speech. That’s why we’ve filed a lawsuit in federal court that seeks to strike down Illinois’ scheme of campaign contribution limits, which restrict free speech and serve no purpose except to increase party leaders’ power at everyone else’s expense.

Fortunately, even if the Senate Resolution passes both houses of the General Assembly, it won’t have any effect unless two-thirds of the states pass similar resolutions. That may not seem likely, but we shouldn’t underestimate the desire of politicians everywhere to do whatever they can to hold on to their power.

So it’s important to speak out against their attacks on the First Amendment now – while we still can.