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Student Government And Mccain-feingold

In today's column George Will takes his crusade against campaign-finance regulations off the deep end: he argues that restrictions on campaign spending in student-government elections at universities should be ditched because they "severely limit political speech."

I'm sympathetic to Will's line of argument as applied to, you know, actual politics, but having served in student government myself in college, I can attest that that it's highly dubious to describe such campaigns as "political speech," or to pretend that the outcomes thereof (except in very rare circumstances) amount to much more than popularity contests. What seems particularly strange, though, is the sneering tone Will takes in restating the rationale for spending restrictions in campus politics:

Now, that is a novel argument: Equal "access" to the educational benefits of student politics would be diminished if more political advocacy were permitted.

Well, um, yes. Student government, on most campuses, is not really about actually governing anything--the deans kindly take care of that. It's more about electing someone to serve as a sort of figurehead for the student body (so that students can complain to the administration in an organized fashion when the dean tries to make it harder for students to throw parties). It's also, I suppose, about inculcating democratic norms. The legitimacy of the whole endeavor would evaporate if wealthy students could simply buy votes--by, for example, sponsoring huge campaign-related parties, which would of course be the very first thing to occur if there were no spending restrictions. In no way is money, in this context, at all indicative of anything resembling ideological or political speech.

It's true that in the particular case that Will cites, from the University of Montana, it seems like a bad idea to allow outside groups and third parties, but not the candidates themselves, to spend unlimited sums on elections. But, really, is it at all reasonable to conclude that "thus do the grossly anti-constitutional premises of McCain-Feingold seep through society, poisoning the practice of democracy at all levels"? What's next, George Will on how middle-school ASB elections demonstrate the failure of New Deal liberalism as a governing ideology?

--Josh Patashnik