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John Whitehead's Commentary

Does George Bush Believe in the First Amendment?

John Whitehead
A few weeks ago, a Boston reporter surprised presidential candidate George W. Bush, Jr. with a quiz on foreign policy. Asked to name the leaders of four countries that are international hotspots, Bush could only name one. But recent developments reveal that foreign policy isn't Bush's only weakness. It seems the Republican front-runner has a blind spot when it comes to the First Amendment as well.

This constitutional flaw made headlines last week when it was revealed that Bush is turning his lawyers loose on the Internet site "gwbush.com." Apparently, Bush is unhappy with the site's parody of his campaign. Created by 29-year-old computer programmer Zack Exley, the site features a prominent - and obviously doctored - photo of Bush with a straw up his nose, allegedly snorting lines of cocaine. And that's just the beginning. Fake press releases and other photos add up to a caustic, and sometimes humorous, parody of the would-be President.

The current governor of Texas isn't laughing, though. Bush's lawyers have filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, asking the FEC to force Exley to comply with the rules regulating political committees.
How do these legal beagles rationalize calling gwbush.com a political committee? Bush attorney Benjamin Ginsburg says Exley has urged web visitors to "Just say no to a former cocaine user for president." In Ginsburg's mind, this sarcastic comment is a form of political action - action that he believes puts Exley in the same camp as special interest committees who spend millions of dollars to get their men elected.

Even if no constitutional issues were at stake, Ginsburg's comments do not meet the litmus test. If the FEC actually moves to force Exley to comply with political committee regulations, political satirists across the country could be in big trouble. Political cartoonists will become extinct. Hopefully, this will not be the case. But the fact that Bush and Ginsburg actually think it will happen is an assault on common sense and good old-fashioned American political parody.

The heart of this controversy, however, is the First Amendment. Gwbush.com is speech, political expression of the highest order. As such, it is protected from government censorship by the First Amendment.

If George W. Bush doesn't know the First Amendment, how can he be President? It's clear that he has a problem with it. The first time a reporter asked him about the web site, Bush angrily responded, "There ought to be limits to freedom." Granted, this comment was made in haste. Nonetheless, it remains one of the more frightening statements to come from a presidential candidate in recent memory.

In addition, a major issue in the coming years - years that Bush is seeking to spend as President - will be the extent to which our society protects free expression on the Internet. Given his outrage over gwbush.com, it seems that a Bush presidency could be a blow to freedom online.
Also, how would Bush respond to the inevitable parody if he were to become President? Ginsburg would be one busy lawyer, with Leno, Letterman, O'Brien, Kilborn and the cast of Saturday Night Live all joining in the satirical fun - not to mention all of those aforementioned political cartoonists.

The Washington Post reported that Bush was so paranoid about parody that his campaign registered dozens of potentially pejorative domain names on the web so that no one could use them to poke fun at him. As the old saying goes, if you can't take the heat, ...

Thin-skinned or not, the fact remains that a President ignorant of the First Amendment is a threat to freedom. When asked by the Post about the First Amendment implications of the move, attorney Ginsburg responded, "How is it a First Amendment issue? It is NOT a First Amendment issue!" Actually, Mr. Ginsburg, it is a First Amendment issue. And you do candidate Bush a great disservice by convincing him that it isn't.

Does George W. Bush believe in the First Amendment? It's a serious question. And despite the nonsensical spirit of gwbush.com, it deserves a serious answer.
ABOUT JOHN W. WHITEHEAD

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People  (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at www.amazon.com. Whitehead can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org.

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John W. Whitehead’s weekly commentaries are available for publication to newspapers and web publications at no charge. Please contact staff@rutherford.org to obtain reprint permission.

 

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