Barack Obama and the exercise of free speech

Barack Obama did a double-twist on free speech yesterday in reaction to the ad produced by an outside political group regarding his association with William Ayers.  After his own campaign produced an ad that Factcheck called a “smear” tying Jack Abramoff to John McCain through Ralph Reed, American Issues produced an ad that pointed out Obama’s political ties to the unrepentant former domestic terrorist, William Ayers.  Instead of letting it drop, Obama’s campaign took two really stupid actions: they produced a response ad and then demanded that the Department of Justice investigate American Issues while pressuring television stations to reject the ad:

Obama’s campaign has written the Department of Justice demanding a criminal investigation of the “American Issues Project,” the vehicle through which Dallas investor Harold Simmons is financing the advertisements. The Obama campaign — and tens of thousands of supporters — also is pressuring television networks and affiliates to reject the ads. The effort has met with some success: CNN and Fox News are not airing the attacks.

Obama has also launched his own response ad, directly addressing Simmons’ attempt to link him to domestic terror.

The project is “a knowing and willful attempt to violate the strictures of federal election law,” Obama general counsel Bob Bauer wrote to Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Keeney last week in a letter provided to Politico. Bauer argued that by advocating Obama’s defeat, the ad should be subject to the contribution limits of federal campaign law, not the anything-goes regime of issue advocacy.

Bauer’s letter called on the Justice Department to open “an investigation of the American Issues Project; its officers and directors; and its anonymous donors, whoever they may be.”

“This is a sad ploy to circumvent the First Amendment by a campaign who has no arguments with the merits of our ad. It’s the classic maneuver: If you can’t win on the merits, file a lawsuit,” said a spokesman for the American Issues Project, Christian Pinkston, who said his group’s non-profit status allowed it to participate in elections as long as it does a majority of policy work, which it plans to do.

One has to wonder why the Obama campaign wants to stage a complete meltdown on the Ayers issue.  Team Obama has thrilled the netroots by saying they won’t be “Swiftboated”, but there isn’t anything factually inaccurate in the ads.  Obama’s own response boils down to this: “Ayers tossed bombs a long time ago, and who cares what he thinks now?”  Plenty of people care about Presidential candidates who feel comfortable with bomb-tossers as friends, and the more Obama keeps the story alive, the more the media will pay attention and more voters will discover this connection.

They have compounded it by demanding a criminal probe into a group that works for political advocacy.  The arcane regulations of political advertising will fly over most people’s heads, but bullying people through the Department of Justice as a candidate will cause reasonable people to wonder what will happen if Obama gets elected. Most Americans will see this as Obama trying to silence someone with an inconvenient political point of view, not as a defense of a campaign-finance system that’s already egregious enough as it is without this kind of precedent.

And again, it keeps the Ayers story alive and practically forces every media outlet to cover it — when they’ve managed to ignore it for the most part until now.

Obama should never have posted defenses of William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn on his campaign website in the first place.  He should have realized that these defenses would make him look as radical as they are, especially with both of them still talking about overthrowing the American system and their mistake in getting out of the underground terrorism business. If the only answer Obama has to counter this is to threaten people who talk about it with criminal prosecution, then he’s essentially confirming everything this ad has to say.