As we learned from the Citizens United ruling, corporations are people and money donated to campaigns is free speech. But did you know that outright bribery is free speech, too? Three Kentucky politicians — including one elected official — have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court arguing that state ethics laws, which ban gifts from lobbyists and their employers, as well as set a $1,000 campaign contribution limit.
Republican Kentucky state Senator John Schickel, along with two Libertarian political candidates argue that the ethics laws, which were established in 1992 after an FBI investigation revealed that fifteen elected officials had been selling their votes, violate their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
“This infringes on the legislator’s, lobbyist’s, and employer of lobbyist’s right to freedom of association, and freedom of speech,” the lawsuit argues. Schickel whines that ethics laws prevent him from attending “holiday parties, hosted by longstanding friends, who are lobbyists or employ lobbyists.”
“They have gone so far overboard with these rules that it’s ridiculous,” said Christopher Wiest, attorney for Schickel and his friends. “If you’re a legislator and a lobbyist is your next-door neighbor, and he invites you over to his place for a Christmas party, you can’t accept, because it might be considered a form of entertainment or a thing of value.”
But, of course, this is really about the politicians’ ability to get free stuff. As the Herald-Leader notes, Schickel “needn’t sit alone during the holidays” as long as he doesn’t accept “food, drink, or other favors” without paying for his share of the entertainment.
The attorney for Schickel, Kentucky House candidate David Watson, and Pendleton County Judge-Executive candidate Ken Moellman Jr. says the trio is attempting to challenge ethics laws in court because House Democrats are unlikely to “go along with him on these issues.” Schickel says he will need $350,000 to defend his Senate seat next year, but complains that he has been able to collect just $98,000 from 150 donors so far. He says that his lobbyist friends are clamboring to throw more money at him, but he fears criminal charges if he accepts illegal money — go figure.
“In my view, any limits are completely unconstitutional and violate free speech,” Schickel says, claiming that the current system favors those already in office. “The legislature through its ethics code and campaign finance laws has restricted free speech, and this is also a major issue for anyone trying to take on an incumbent. The system completely favors those in office.”
But Edwin Bender, executive director of FollowTheMoney.org, says the opposite is true:
“This concept of doing this for free speech is disingenuous. The politicians are doing it because, when they are in power, they are able to retain power.”
Unfortunately, the Herald-Leader notes, federal courts have “proven willing in recent years to overturn campaign-finance restrictions that judges believe violate the constitutional rights of donors and candidates.” One court, for example, eliminated the $50,000 limit on how much Kentucky gubernatorial candidates may loan their campaigns.
It would be nice to think that Schickel and company will fail, and that ethics rules will remain intact — but it is entirely possible that (as with Citizens United) monied interests — sorry, “free speech” — will prevail in the end.
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.