Get out of the way

The First Amendment has been taking a beating in Nevada during this year’s political campaign.

In June, Nevada Judge Patrick Flanagan issued an order at the request of candidate Ben Kieckhefer taking one of Republican state senate candidate Gary Schmidt’s campaign commercials off the air on grounds that Flanagan and Kieckhefer believed it contained false information. As we noted at the time (“A judicial outrage,” June 12), under federal law, political candidates can put any ads they want on the air and it is the job of voters, not judges, to decide whether they are accurate.

And the only way a television station can refuse to sell time to candidates is to refuse to sell to all candidates. Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Federal Communications Commission have issued rulings that tell local judges to butt out of these disputes. Flanagan’s order was an undeclared in-kind contribution to Kieckhefer’s campaign.

In September, District Judge David Hardy foolishly approved a legal settlement between the Washoe County School Board and superintendent of schools Pedro Martinez that contains—at Hardy’s insistence—this gag rule: “The parties agree that they will not disparage or malign one another with respect to any matter relating to their employment or service, their professionalism, ethics, work ethics, character or integrity.”

There was a campaign for school board going on. Superintendent Martinez and the school board are principal campaign issues in this county. The members of the school board are elected officials. This is a matter involving pure political speech, and Hardy’s brainless order prevented voters from hearing about it from those most directly involved.

In the case of Adam Laxalt, the situation and the law was a bit different. He went to television stations and asked them to take advertisements for his opponent off the air because he didn’t like their content. Now, these were ads put on the air by groups supporting his opponent, and the law is different for independent groups than for candidate ads. Laxalt had the right to pressure TV stations.

But both he and his opponent had groups supporting them with big money, and every indication from campaign disclosures was that Laxalt was getting much more—by at least a million dollars—than his opponent. Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Newt Gingrich, Tom Ridge, Ed Meese and a Republican lawyers group were among those pouring money into Laxalt’s campaign.

So what does it say about Laxalt that he was willing to scurry to local businesspeople and try to get them to censor his opponent instead of simply enjoying his financial advantage and standing up, making his case to the voters and letting them decide whether he or his opponent were right? How much trust does he have in the voters he was asking to elect him?

Voters should hear everything about candidates and people like Kieckhefer, Flanagan, Hardy and Laxalt should get out of the way. If they don’t want to obey federal law, or trust the voters’ judgment, they could try the Nevada Constitution: “Every citizen may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects being responsible for the abuse of that right; and no law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.”