Friday, August 22, 2003


ACLU censors John Ashcroft

The New York Times reports that Ashcroft is getting entirely predictable flak, but with an interesting twist:

Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, told Mr. Ashcroft in a letter that he should either "desist from further speaking engagements" or explain why they do not violate restrictions on political activities by government officials.

Mr. Conyers said that the speeches in defense of the USA Patriot Act, as the antiterrorism law is known, appeared to conflict with Congressional restrictions preventing the use of Justice Department money for "publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by Congress." He said they might also violate the Anti-Lobbying Act and its restrictions on grass-roots lobbying on legislative matters.

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union raised similar concerns about Mr. Ashcroft's speaking tour, which began this week in Washington, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Des Moines and will continue over the next three weeks. The message in all the speeches has been that despite rising criticism the Patriot Act has proved an essential tool in fighting terrorism.

Barbara Comstock, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said Mr. Ashcroft's speaking tour had been thoroughly reviewed by department lawyers and was "entirely appropriate" under federal law.

The proper criticism of Ashcroft is that the Patriot Act is a bad law and that he has overreached in using it, not that he is violating federal law for defending it. I think what Conyers and the ACLU are doing in these accusations is misguided and counter-productive. I, for one, would not interpret the Anti-Lobbying law [18 USC section 1913] to reach this sort of activity. It should not apply to speeches by the President or Cabinet members to drum up support for legislation through public speeches or personal appearances. What it should apply to-- at most-- are surreptitious attempts by lower-level government bureaucrats (i.e. those who are not appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate) to induce private citizens to lobby Congress or write their Congressmen and Senators. It's possible that Ashcroft might fall afoul of other language designed to keep government servants from spending money to engage in self-aggrandizement or puffing of their achievements, but these laws really shouldn't apply to this case. Ashcroft is not going on a frolic and detour trying to puff himself up. He is doing Bush's bidding-- going on the stump on issues that Bush doesn't particularly want to face the public on.

I think there is some irony in the ACLU trying to keep John Ashcroft from speaking.

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