Friday, July 28, 2006

The Skpetic on the latest Feingold Bill

I have already posted on this topic, but here is what Allison Hayward has to sayabout Russ Feingold's latest campaign finance bill.
Personally, I’d prefer death with dignity, but do-gooders everywhere are excited (perhaps I exaggerate - mildly engaged?) about a new proposal from the usual suspects (absent Senator McCain, notably) to save the Presidential Public Financing System.
One thing I forgot to note about the Feingold bill. The limit for matching contributions is lowered from $250 to $200. That may not seem important, but it is. A contribution of $250 must be reported to the FEC along with the name, address, occupation and employer of the contributor. A $200 contribution does not.

Is it an important distinction, perhaps and perhaps not, but there is no rationale offered for lowering the threshold--but it does present an interesting juxtaposition for Feingold, et al.

UPDATE: Bob Bauer sees something much more sinister in the Feingold Bill.
While it is modeled on its predecessor, and for this reason may seem familiar—a treasured bit of clothing adjusted for a better fit—it is more, far more, than that. At this moment in time, in structure and professed aim, the proposal presents a pivotal choice of direction in campaign finance regulation.


This is movement toward reform far broader in ambition than a statute like BCRA, as consequential as it was, which was advertised as an exercise in law enforcement. By the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, spent on a mix of inducements and penalties, the bill, if passed, would bring the country closer to an effectively mandatory public funding system in Presidential elections. Reformers’ hopes for an eventual adaptation of the same program to Congressional elections, toward the same goal of enhanced "competition," rest on the outcome.

Update (7/31/06): The Lonely Centrist weighs in as well by pointing to this post by the Cato Institute.

More Tax Supported Elections

Brad Smith, Chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics points to recently introduced legislation that would increase taxpayer subsidies for federal elections by some 400 percent. Every year when you file your tax return, there is a box on your return that asks if you want to contribute $3 dollars to the presidential campaign financing program (I once had a tax preparer tell me I had to check the box--I no longer employ her services).

As Brad Smith points out
[P]residential races are substantially subsidized by taxpayers, to the tune of approximately $60 million or more per year. Over the years, taxpayers have been forced to subsidize three presidential campaigns by John Hagelin of the Natural Law Party, whose platform was based on a call for more transcendental meditation; seven presidential campaigns by Lyndon LaRouche, including one run from Federal Prison; and two by Lenore Fulani of the defunct New Alliance Party. They have also been forced to pay for runs by "major party candidates" such as Larry Agran, Milton Schaap, Keating Five Senator Alan Cranston, and many other long-forgotten figures. They have paid for balloon drops at national party conventions, and campaign attack ads - all told, over $2.4 billion in current dollars.
That is a lot of green to pay for all kinds of speech that at least half the country, on average, disagrees with on a regular basis.

In 2000 and 2004, President Bush declined public matching funds since taking matching funds carries with it all kinds of restrictions, including limits, on when and how the funds can be spent. Additionally, the private money raised by candidates that serves as the basis for the matching funds also is limited in the manner in which it is spent. In 2000, Bush was blasted for his actions--which were clearly in his best interest. In 2004, both Howard Dean and John Kerry declined public financing. I suspect that in 2008 both the leading Republican and Democratic candidates, no matter who they are, will forgo public financing--and they should.

Realizing that most national campaigns depend heavily upon significant fundraising machines, that fundraising machine should not be the American taxpayer. According to the Fact Sheet put out by Senator Feingold, the bill would increase by the current public funding match from 1 to 1 to 4 to for the first $200 of a contribution to a candidate. So instead of doubling the money a candidate gets, the money is quadrupled! Additionally, instead of matching starting on January 1 of election year, it will begin on July 1 of the year prior, almost doubling the length of time candidates can receive public money.

But here is my personal favorite provision, one that punishes candidates who opt out of the system by boosting their opponents:
Provides that if a candidate who is not participating in the public financing system raises or spends more than 20% more than a primary spending limit, the spending limit for all of the participating candidates of that party is increased by $50 million, indexed for inflation. An additional 1:1 match of eligible contributions will also be made available to all participating candidates.
Russ Feingold has aspirations to the Presidency and clearly this law would benefit him greatly in his quest for the Presidency.

The Presidential funding system was established in the wake of Watergate, a time when the funding of presidential campaigns was not transparent, where big, anonymous donors probably called the shots a great deal. But the system is an anachronism today. The fact that Presidential campaigns must file campaign finance reports on a monthly basis, the low itemization threshold of $200 per cotnributor, the current $2100 per election limit per person, and the speed and efficiency of electronic filing means that knowing who is paying for the campaign of any candidate is made easy for the press, and therefore the public.

Brad Smith talks of priorities for the tax money that is to be allocated for the presidential campaign system
Leaving aside fundamental philosophical questions of whether it is ever proper to force taxpayers to support the political speech of candidates they oppose, or ignoring the particulars of this proposal, the question of tax financing of campaigns becomes one of priorities. In the great scheme of the federal budget, the subsidy is not a lot - although even at current levels it is enough to fund, for example, the entire budget of the Consumer Products Safety Commission.
But it is exactly those philosophical questions we should be answering. Should the goverment be funding political speech? At a time when more and more political activity is being regulated, through the efforts of Feingold himself and others, where do we draw the line? At what point do we stop allowing the government to tell us, and the canddiates we support or oppose, when and how much political speech is proper. Should the government be subsidizing the four day infomercials knows as party conventions? Should the government be in the business of paying for attack ads, negative campaigning and the like?

Milton Freidman once said that if you want more of something, subsidize it. I love and embrace the idea of competitive elections, but competition in elections comes from dynamic candidates, capable of energizing the voters, and yes, convincing the voters to give them money. Competitive elections can only be grown through the rough and tumble of electoral politics and the growth of energetic and engaging candidates, capable of finding their own way by raising the money for the campaigns themselves.
Competitive elections cannot be subsidized, they cannot be bought through public expenditures.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Center for Competitive Politics

I had totally forgotten to post the new website of the Center for Competitive Politics has gotten their website operational, featuring Brad Smith and lots of research and other materials on election law, campaign finance and other matters of interest. Finally a group that is organized to counter the "reform community." If you like you politics free of government intrusion, you need to start reading this site.

How Can You Be a Team Player When Your Team Cuts You

For those of you who check in at this space regularly know that I sometimes write for Watchblog, a great blog with columns written by Democrats, Independents and Republicans, all on the same page, all at the same time. I love reading the posts there and I really should link to them a little more often. So I am making a pledge to do so starting with this post: So Long Joe, Been Good to Know Ya. The post begins this way:
If there was any question that Joe Lieberman is headed for trouble in the August 8th Democratic primary, it was dispelled when Lieberman filed papers enabling him to run as an Independent. Way to be a team player, Joe. This Democrat says, "Good riddance."(emphasis added)
I love the irony in this statement, way to be a team player. Joe Lieberman has not been a welcome member of the Democratic "Team" in a long time. From screeds against him on Daily Kos to this little bombast, Democrats have made clear that Lieberman is not welcome at their party because he supports the war on terror.

I remember the days when if a Democrat didn't support a right to an abortion, they were all but drummed out of the party. When Democrats favored business over labor--sayonara sister. Now, if a Democrat says, "we must win the war on terror," that Democrat is considered a blasphemer and summarily crucified by the Left.

So Lieberman filed papers that would allow him to run as an independent if he loses on August 8, he is simply acting like any other incumbent who wants to keep his job--no more, no less. His is no more abandoning his "team" than his team has abandoned him.

Good luck Mr. Lieberman, I hope you win in a landslide.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Choice hits Capitol Hill--Run for Cover

I admit, I have been a long and vocal advocate for charter schools, school choice in general and beleive that the more charter schools exist and fulfill their mission, the better it is for all schools. But at the same time, I have been a conservative, limited role for the federal government guy for an even longer time. That is why this post from Edspresso has me irritated.

Federal involvement in education has grown dramatically over the past 40 years, so much so that states have become almost utterly dependent upon federal money for education. There have been some positives as a result of this invovlement, namely more money in the system (not necessarily money that is wisely spent, but definitely more money). The federal government's mandate from NCLB for reporting on test results by racial/ethnic groups and other breakdowns has done much to spark debate among policymakers and parents about the quality of education. Other aspects of the law I think are a little too utopian (like how do you achive 100% proficiency among students) or too wishy-washy, like failing to actually enforce the law. But nonetheless, NCLB has sparked real debate about school achievement.

Having said that, and understanding that Congress often attaches some very significant strings to the money it provides, I am troubled by the report of Congressional Republicans seeking to expand voucher programs, to the tune of $100 million in new spending. First, vouchers are not a panacea to the ills of a failing school system. Can they be part of a solution? sure, but they are not in any way a total solution. Second, vouchers represent the easiest solution for just a small population. After all, there are only so many seats available in private schools so even if the government provided a massive voucher benefit, that does not mean that every child deserving of a voucher will get to exercise that voucher. Third, vouchers are a solution designed to be applied on a local, even sub-school district, level to address a specific set of problems. Vouchers, like any proposed solution to a complex problem, cannot be applied in the same manner in all situations.

Here is the crux of the situation, the voucher program as it is proposed is a massive expansion, yet again, of the federal role in education, and this is something to be feared and resisted. I like the fact that education is a state and local level issue. Each school district faces their own unique challenges and applying a one size fits all solution shortchanges local government, state government and most importantly the children in the schools.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, feared the centralization of administration, the tendency to have the national government administer all programs in the same manner regardless of location. Tocqueville feared this centralization of administration as harmful to democracy--and it is. Already dependent on federal money, local school boards have little choice but to accept this new proposal, were it to become law, because Congress will certainly couch the receipt of federal funds on the creation of the voucher program at the local level. Congress can of course, do this, but that does not mean Congress should.

What Congress and its members can do is lead on the issue. Congress can encourage the use of multiple methods of school choice, vouchers, charter schools, public school magnet programs, development of more private schools, anything that increases the opportunity for parents to find an educational solution that best fits them and their child. Leadership does not mean legislation, leadership means the promulgation of ideas and this may be the one thing lacking on Capitol Hill. We have plenty of political decisions, but little leadership of ideas.

The federal government is already too big and consumes too much of our lives. When it comes to education, Congress should speak up and encourage school choice, but it should keep its legislative pen in its pocket.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Conflict Between Scholars and Policymakers

That is the title of a wonderful post over at Prof. Hasen's blog written by Spencer Overton on the VRA Renewal. While I have a number of problems with VRA, I think Overton makes a solid argument that sometimes the academic debates over legislative issues, while intriguing and informative often overlook the intensely political undercurrents and overtones of the legislative process. Much of the VRA renewal, at least in the later stages of the debate, was about politics and the likely power struggles that will happen in years hence, a factor often overlooked by academic debaters.

One thing is for certain about the VRA renewal--it will be headed for Court challenges, it will be on the Supreme Court docket in a couple of years and I am convinced that it will have some parts of it voided by the Court. For that reason alone, a 25 year renewal period is probably unwarranted. But that is a topic of another post.

Another Thankless Job for the Marines

Michelle Malkin has photos and links to more photos of the efforts of a small group of Marines who are helping to evacuate Americans and probably other foriegn nationals from Lebanon.

When a few bad apples do something stupid in Iraq, it gets headlines for weeks, when Marines help people, nary a headline anywhere. Makes you wonder.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

$71,100 Civil Penalty In Millionaire's Amendment Case

Last year, I asked the question of whether or not someone was going to step up and take on a constitutional challenge to the Millionaire's Amendment, that abomination attached to BCRA that supposedly levels the playing field but actually protects incumbents. Well the FEC has closed yet another case under the amendment to the tune of a $71,000 fine.

I have long believed this amendment to be unconstitutional (even wrote a paper arguing against its constitutionality in law school). But in order for a challenge to occur, someone has to be punished. Broyhill is in a position to do so and if I had the expertise, I would take on the case. But that is another matter.

Not only is the amendment unconstitutional in my view, the regulations are pretty complex. According to the FEC press release:
Under the Millionaire’s Amendment, House candidates must notify the FEC and their opponents when they exceed $350,000 in personal spending and also with each additional $10,000 in expenditures of personal funds thereafter. The law allows opponents of these candidates to receive larger individual contributions than would otherwise be permitted. Mr. Broyhill and Broyhill for Congress failed to file a notification within 24 hours of the candidate making a loan to the campaign that brought his spending of personal funds to more than $350,000 in the primary, and they subsequently failed to file notifications within 24 hours regarding additional expenditures of personal funds totaling $365,000.
Because challengers are the candidates who are most likely to spend of their own money, and the relative inexperience of these candidates, it is easy to see why some violations are bound to occur.

For just a little history on the Millionaire's Amendment, you have to go to the Congressional record and debates on the Senate floor for BCRA. The amendment did not appear in committee during debates there, nor was it debated much in the House. But Senator after Senator, from both sides of the aisle, stood up to say the amendment was needed to ensure "a level playing field." The amendment was approved in a bipartisan vote that included Jon Corzine, the former NJ Senator and now Governor who spent $62 million of his own money to become Senator and didn't want someone else to do the same. The practical effect of the amendment is that challengers (those most likely to spend from their own pocket) who spend too much then allows the incumbent (and other canddiates) to raise money under increased contribution limits. But the challenger facing an incumbent with a $2 million warchest cannot do the same to make up the difference. Not particularly fair, in my mind.

Allison had this to say.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Of Contribution Limits and Compelling Interests

For three decades, the Supreme Court and lower courts at both the state and federal level have clung to and repeated cited that prevention of corruption or the appearance of corruption is a compelling reason for campaign finance contribution limits. Even in the recently deciced Vermont campaign finance case, the Court essentially reiterated this point when they found that time management is not a compelling enough reason for the draconian limits found in Vermont's Act 64. Every state in the union has a campaign finance disclosure law, although some are more stringent than others. With such disclosures in place, is the corruption or appearace interest even applicable any more?

The original impetus behind the FECA rationale for prevention of corruption is that large campaign contributions have the potential to lead to a quid pro quo arragement between contributor and office holder/seeker. However, dozens of studies have failed to produce even one incident of actual corruption as the result of a campaign contribution. We have plenty of fabricated "appearance of corruption" assertions (the whole point behind websites like and Democracy 21). But in a era when rapid disclosure is possible through the internet, can we finally dispense with this archaic rationale?

When the orginial FECA was passed there were no mechanisms for immediately disclosing contributions. The Internet was a gleam in some engineer's mind and faxes were not particularly wide spread. A contribution limit, coupled with the less frequent disclosure deadlines, was the surest way to ensure that corruption didn't take place over the short haul, but the disclosure report provided the sunshine necessary to prevent corruption over the long haul. Advances in communcations and the speed of the internet to both disclose and review the contributions makes the contribution limit and the prevention of corruption rationale obsolete. In short, the FECA disclosure regime originally formulated to prevent corruption made a contribution limit necessary. But with modern tools of near instantaneous disclosure, and widely available campaign finance software packages (including a free one provided by the FEC), contribution limits are not necessary.

Campaign finance reports, at least for House candidates, political parties and presidential candidates, are filed electronically with the FEC and are generally available within minutes of submission for the whole world (namely reporters) to see. With the sunlight provided by the media, the contributors to each candidate become instantly available along with how much has been given. Even now, for these political committees at least, there is little need for much additional information, save for perhaps a change that would extend the late contribution report regime to include contributions of $1,000 or more coming in say the last month of a campaign.

A beefed up disclosure law, which no court in the land would strike down, does not impinge on freedom of speech and has only a marginal impact on associational freedoms. Thus with a stringent disclosure law, contribution limits are not necessary since the press and the public would put the most stringent limit on campaign contributions, that of the "red face test," whether or not a candidate can face his or her constituents and say that they are not controlled by the contributor. Will there be large campaign contributions? Most assuredly and rightfully so. But a candidate can only take so many large contributions before the electorate begins to question where their loyalties lie.

Here are some suggestions for changes to the disclosure rules:
  1. All candidates must file monthly disclosure reports, due 15 days after the end of a month.
  2. In the six weeks leading up to a primary and the eight weeks leading up to a general election, full disclosure reports are due every week.
  3. In the six weeks leading up to a primary and the eight weeks leading up to a general election, any contribution in excess of $1,000 is to be reported to the FEC within 48 hours of receipt.
  4. In the six weeks leading up to a primary and the eight weeks leading up to a general election, any contribution in excess of $5,000 must be reported withing 24 hours of receipt.
  5. Failure to file these reports or omitting the information that is to be reported is punishable by a $10,000 fine for each failure plus a percentage of the receipts on the report.
The disclosure regime is the most successful feature of the election laws. Disclosure allows the voting public to know who is funding campaigns. However, the current regime does not provide a clear picture of activity in the days and weeks leading up to an election until after the election takes place. The structure provided above rectifies that problem.

The rationale for contribution limits is to prevent corruption. But corruption is not prevented by limits, but rather by the public scrutiny that is paid to campaign finance. Make the disclosure reports more frequent and more comprehensive and you can do away with the even marginal impact that contribution limits have on free speech.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Better-Schools Deal: Pay Teachers More and Demand Results

What is needed to make real strides in school reform? Well according to a coalition of liberal and conservative groups, pay teachers more and demand accountability. These are not particularly new ideas, but in a recentRoll Call editorial, Morton Krondacke points to a new group that is looking to bridge the political gap.
The deal would be: Republicans agree to more equitable distribution of school funding — including higher teacher pay — while Democrats agree that teachers should be paid for performance, not just seniority.


The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched a project along with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the liberal Center for American Progress and the moderate America’s Promise that will start by publishing report cards on each state’s progress on school reform.
The group also includes the Thomas Fordham Foundation among others.

At the heart of the proposal is weighted school funding, whereby money for schools flows and moves with the student, not the school system. This brilliantly simple idea means that money sticks with the student as they move through the system, with more money allocated for students of greater socio-economic need. The idea is significantly different than the "flavor of the month solution" the 65% solution. Here is a handy chart that breaks down the two ideas.

What is most intriguing about this idea is that it mirrors the real world in so many ways. Successful private schools are funded by either philanthropy or tuition based on student enrollment, the more students, the more money. Weighted school funding does the same thing, the money is tied to students.

If we take this step, the next step should be easy as well. If funding is tied to students, the argument is that school principals will have more control over the operation of their school, budgeting money as needed for that school and eliminating excessive bureaucratic oversight. Then the schools will be ready to actually compete for students, in short a more market based education economy.

But to make the move to a weighted school funding model will take something of a leap of faith among politicians and educrats. Leaps of faith are not something that politicians and bureaucrats do well.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Judge Upholds Raid of Jefferson's Office

Roll Call is reporting (subscription required) that U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan has ruled that the FBI raid on Congressman William Jefferson's House office was constitutional and did not violate the Speech and Debate clause or separation of powers.
In his 28-page ruling, Hogan acknowledged that the issues raised by the Jefferson case were "unprecedented" and that special care and procedures must be employed by law enforcement officials in conducting any searches of Congressional offices.

But Hogan categorically rejected the position taken by Jefferson and the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group — an official House entity representing the leadership of both parties — that the FBI search was a violation of the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause, which protects lawmakers and staffers from criminal or civil actions stemming from legislative activities.

Hogan also rejected the notion that the search breached the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.

"It is well-established ... that a Member of Congress is generally bound to the operation of criminal laws as are ordinary persons," Hogan wrote. "The Speech or Debate Clause does not ‘make Members of Congress super-citizens, immune from criminal responsibility."

Hogan added: "Congressman Jefferson’s interpretation of the Speech or Debate privilege would have the effect of converting every congressional office into a taxpayer-subsidized sanctuary for crime. Such a result is not supported by the Constitution or judicial precedent and will not be adopted here."
This is clearly the right decision. Admittedly, there may have been some documents seized in the raid that were and truly are protected by the Speech and Debate clause, but that seizure would be inadvertant and immaterial to the investigation. The FBI could care less what Congressman Jefferson and his staff think about some tax bill that was making its way through Congress. But they do, and should, have a right to seize material related to the bribery investigation.

Bribery is still a felony and the Speech and Debate clause does not protect Congressmen from felony prosecutions.

Jefferson's legal team, supported--wrongly I might add--by a bipartisan House legal group, plan to appeal the decision, but I suspect that the decision will be upheld and the matter to appear before the Supreme Court sometime next year.

The Memorandum Opinion In the Matter of the Search of: RAYBURN HOUSE OFFICE BUILDING, can be found here.

When Talk Radio Can't

I admit, I am a talk radio junkie, which is hard for me since I am also a music junkie as well so I jump around the radio dial a lot. But what I love most about talk radio is its immediacy, its timeliness. Discussion of the issues of the day are what makes talk radio successful and important. Everything from syndicated shows like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to local radio shows dealing with local issues, talk radio is designed to inform and entertain.

But given that most talk radio is largely conservative in its political leanings, it was bound to attract the attention of the more liberal in our midst as somehow not quite right. These are the people that cling to the era of the fairness doctrine, that broadcasters must give equal time to each side of an issue. But that is not the current rule, and it has allowed some radio hosts to be blantantly partisan in their discussions and evidence their partisanship by attacks on their political opponents, having guests of a certain political bent but not others and support issues that meet their political agenda.

While talk radio is largely a conservative medium, it doesn't have to be and frankly I wish that it wasn't (it would give me more radio stations to flip to and more fodder for this little corner of cyberspace). But what happens to talk radio when they get involved in politics too much? Well, if they are in Washington State, they get a great big "shut your pie hole" from the courts.

In the case of San Juan County vs. No New Gas Tax, a couple of talk radio hosts were encouraging their listeners to support an initiative that would have limited or reduced the rather large gas tax increases in the county. A local law firm sued alledging that by making the statements they did, the hosts made an in-kind contribution to the No New Gas Tax committee, which did not report the in-kind contribution.

To say that the case is convoluted is a understatement. First it looks like the County of San Juan Washington brought the case, right? Well not so fast, according to the Institute for Justice, a law firm was delegated with the power to bring the suit:
[T]he government has delegated its prosecutorial authority to a private law firm that stands to gain politically and financially from harassing the initiative campaign. The firm, Foster, Pepper & Shefelman PLLC, is not only a member of the political opposition to the initiative but also “bond counsel” to the State agency that would issue bonds based on the revenue derived from the tax increase. Simply put, with no tax, there are no revenue and no bond issuance, and therefore fewer potential fees for Foster Pepper.
I am sure this type of delegation happens regularly in a number of circles, but the finanical entanglementson the back end bothers me. But that is beside the point.

What bothers me even more is the fact that everyone, including the Washington state court system, seems to be overlooking a couple of factors here. First, I always thought freedom of hte press meant just that. If the New York Times can publish the Pentagon Papers, details of various secret government anti-terrorist surveillence programs and be protected, why then can't a couple of local disk jockeys talk about a local issue. Is a radio talk show host not a member of the press? Or is freedom of the press only for those with approved talking points?

Second, is not the purpose of editorials that appear in newspapers meant to pursuade? Just about every newspaper in America has, at one time or another, advocated for certain political causes, whether that be through the endorsement of canddiates, the urging of the passage of certain legislation or initiatives, or simply presenting a singular point of view on a topic. No one questions the right of newspapers to do this, and no one calls the newspaper editorial an in-kind contribution. An endorsement by the Washington Post is highly coveted in area politics and can be particuarly valuable for a campaign, but I don't consider it an in-kind contribution of any sort--and neither does the FEC or most states.

But in Washington state, a radio host, no matter what their political pursuasion cannot do the same thing as a newspaper editor. I fail to see the distinction, even if there were a fairness doctrine in place for broadcasters--which, again, there is not.

The implications of this case are so multitudinous that one could forgiven for not seeing them all. Were this ruling to stand, radio, TV, newspapers, newsletters, bloggers, anyone with an opinion and a means to express it could be making an in-kind contribution to a candidate or an initiative, all without the knowledge of the campaign. What are we left with, a nightmare scenario of unreported, unregulated speech.

Oh wait, that was the purpose of the First Amendment--silly me, there I go believing in the Constitution again.

Tip of the Hat to Paul Michael Sherman for the link to the Institute for Justice link about the case and Richard Sheppard who was kind enough to post a link to a video of recent court proceedings on the case. Both links came through the Election Law Listserve.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Death Knell for Valedictory Speeches?

Hat Tip: Spunkyhomeschool

The past month or so has seen a number of conflicts, some not new, over what is acceptable content in a high school valedictory speech. The latest interations cover matters ranging from the proper role of religion, to whether a blunt criticism of the education provided by the school is properly addressed in a valedictory speech. What all of these incidents, old and new, point to is a coming death of the high school valedictory speech. But a larger questions are presented on a constitutional level, such as whether the valedictorian (or valedictorians) represent the schools in a sense that they are prohibited from mentioning religion and at what point do full free speech rights attach?

A coulpe of weeks ago, a young woman, Brittany McComb, the valedictorian of Foothill High School near Las Vegas, had her microphone turned off mid-speech because she planned to mention Jesus Christ as the most important person in her life.
However, Clark County School District officials and an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union said Friday that cutting McComb's mic was the right call. Graduation ceremonies are school-sponsored events, a stance supported by federal court rulings, and as such may include religious references but not proselytizing, they said.

They said McComb's speech amounted to proselytizing and that her commentary could have been perceived as school-sponsored.

Before she delivered her commencement speech, McComb met with Foothill administrators, who edited her remarks. It's standard district practice to have graduation speeches vetted before they are read publicly.

School officials removed from McComb's speech some biblical references and the only reference to Christ.

But even though administrators warned McComb that her speech would get cut short if she deviated from the language approved by the school, she said it all boiled down to her fundamental right to free speech.
While I agree with position that graduation is a school sponsored event, I am not as certain that references to the Bible (a well read and published book) or to Jesus Christ amount to proselytizing nor am I convinced that the "standard practice" of vetting valedictory speeches is proper.

Even assuming, arguendo, that McComb's speech would be considered by the courts to be proselytizing, I don't believe McComb should be bound by the rules normally associated with preventing public schools from establishing a religion. McComb, and others like her across the country, are not asking for public funds to be expended to support her religion, they mere seek to let people know from where they draw the strength to achieve the spectacular goal of graduating at the top of their class. Furthermore, McComb is not an agent of the school, she is not appearing or holding herself out as an agent, but rather she has been chosen to represent the student body.

While religious references in valedictory speeches probably concern most school officials, the speech that must give them nightmares is teh speech that criticizes the school. Such was the speech of Kareem Elnahal, the valedictorian at Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, NJ. Elnahal's speech is one of the most damning critiques of modern public schools from a student who achieved much by those schools' standards, yet feels cheated by the experience.
Education can be defined a number of different ways. For me, it is the product of human curiosity. Intellectual thought, as far as I can tell, is nothing but the asking and answering of questions. In my reflection, however, and I have reflected on this a great deal, I found that many of life’s most important questions are ignored here. What is the right way to live? What is the ideal society? What principles should guide my behavior? What is success, what is failure? Is there a creator, and if so, should we look to it for guidance? These are often dismissed as questions of religion, but religion is not something opposed to rationality, it simply seeks to answer such questions through faith. The separation of church and state is, of course, important, but it should never be a reason for intellectual submission or suppression of any kind.


We study what is, never why, never what should be. For that reason, the education we have received here is not only incomplete, it is entirely hollow.


Ladies and gentlemen, the spirit of intellectual thought is lost.


But I know how highly this community values learning, and I urge you all to re-evaluate what it means to be educated.
Elnahal's speech is an uncomfortable indictment for those sitting on the dais, I'm sure. But was he right to make the speech. Obviously, school officials have a hypocritical answer:
Daniel Loggi, superintendent of the Atlantic County, N.J., School District, said he was not troubled with Elnahal sharing his thoughts, but disagreed with the manner in which he chose to do it.

"I don't have any problem with anybody speaking what they feel." Loggi told Cybercast News Service. "But there are certain parameters when you have a graduation or any kind of ceremony where you prepare for it. I don't believe the way he did it was appropriate."

Loggi added that the student did not give school administrators the chance to either approve or disapprove. "Who knows whether the Mainland administration would have approved it or not. Maybe they would have, but he didn't give them that opportunity."
I find it highly unlike that the school would have approved of the speech.

But McComb's and Elnahal's stories present, as I said, larger questions. What speech rights do these no longer students have? If high school graduation is supposed to be a passage into adulthood, when young men and women should be accorded certain additional rights. Admittedly, schools have a responsiblity to prevent certain kinds of speech that may be disruptive of the educational mission of the school. But a valedictory speech is not in school, by its very nature, it occurs at the end of the schooling process. Should not the speaker, as long as they are not violating other limitations of speech, such as inciting violence, be fully protected.

Should speeches be vetted prior to them being delivered? Make no doubt, it is a form of censorship, but should it be permitted for a person who has not only graduated, but graduated at the top of their class? Should not the speech that challenges us, questions us, pushes us be protected as much as the normal platitudes we may hear in valedictory speeches? I would argue they should be protected more, for the very reason that they make us uncomfortable.

I do not fault, and indeed applaud, McComb and Elnahal for their actions and their desire to speak their mind. The question of their right to speak as they see fit is a challenging one, but sadly, I fear the reaction of the education establishment will be to prevent such incidents again. Schools with either institute broad censorship programs that prevent speechs like these by requiring a review by school officials or just ban valedictory speeches all together.

In the end the lesson will be that free speech in high schools is something you only get to study, not practice.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A Nice Little Unannounced Break

Having now recovered from a nice little unannounced break (thanks to a faulty cable modem), I have returned to blogging.

In the downtime, I spent Fourth of July in Baker Park in Frederick, Maryland. I am not sure what other small cities do, but I love the Fourth in Frederick. They have live music (local acts mostly, but with some mid-level national acts), lots of food (none of it good for you--except the bottled water they sell at massively inflated prices), games for the kids, games for the adults, just two or three beer gardens, lots of discreet security to make sure drunks don't get too rowdy, and a pretty good fireworks display. Granted, the fireworks 30 or so miles away in Washington, DC are more impressive, but not as personal.

My kids love the fourth, even Pudding, the nine-month old.

I have maintained my streak of not working--on anything--not even laundry, on the Fourth since leaving the Navy 12 years ago.

Democratic Money for Netroots

Via the Skeptic, comes a story about the funding of the so-called "Netroots" that Kos is constantly plugging. Considering Kos supported candiates are something like 1-19, I would suggest he get a better record of supporting candidates before crowing about the power of the netroots.

What I find interesting is how relatively small the liberal funding base is.
Some of the key PG players, though far from all, are Howard Dean, George Soros, Simon Rosenberg, Andy Rappaport, and SEIU President Andy Stern. All of them, and others, have channeled serious money and support to the Netroots movement, including to Moulitsas and Armstrong, since it began. In fact, it likely wouldn't have taken off or even survived without that financial support.
Whenever Democratic money is talked about, these are the names that keep popping up. The fact that Dean's name is on the list is not surprising given his current role, but Soros, Rosenberg and Stern seem to be the only ones funding a real Democratic movement. Rosenberg and Stern are on the opposite ends of several key matters, including how much the Democratic party should be wed to the labor movement. Still, this is a great piece of writing. Read the whole thing.