Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Author: Bill Piper, Special To The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published: April 29, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Contact: [email protected]
In building his case for liberating Iraq, President Bush told Congress and the American people, "America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice and religious tolerance."
These principles continue to comfort and motivate both our soldiers making the ultimate sacrifice for America and the Iraqi people struggling to build a free society of their own.
Yet, at the very time our soldiers are risking their lives to bring democracy to Iraq, certain members of Congress are undermining it at home.
This year, U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) slipped a provision into a federal spending bill that takes transportation grants away from any city that displays ads on its buses and subways from groups advocating "the legalization or medical use of" marijuana.
The provision is already having a chilling effect on free speech. Afraid of losing at least $85 million in transportation funding, the Washington transportation authority rejected an advertisement this year submitted by a coalition of drug policy reform groups.
The ad shows a group of ordinary people standing behind prison bars under the headline, "Marijuana Laws Waste Billions of Taxpayer Dollars to Lock Up Non-Violent Americans."
The goal of the Istook Amendment is to prevent residents from educating their neighbors on why we need to reform our nation's marijuana laws.
Of course, it won't be long before other members of Congress try to censor viewpoints they disagree with. Abortion-rights groups could lobby Congress to ban anti-abortion ads and vice versa.
This is censorship, plain and simple.
With $3 billion in federal transportation dollars at stake, this is a serious issue. Courts have generally ruled that public transportation authorities cannot discriminate against any political viewpoint.
If local and state transit authorities are forced to run drug policy reform ads, they could lose federal grants. Istook's provision could end up costing cities in many congressional districts tens of millions of dollars. That means not only less service, but also fewer jobs.
The same federal spending bill also gave the federal government $145 million in taxpayer money to run ads in support of a war on marijuana, including ads on buses and subways around the country.
At the same time members of Congress are spending taxpayer money to promote their view on an issue, they're prohibiting taxpayers from using their own money to pay for ads offering a different perspective.
Right now it's marijuana policy; tomorrow it could be tax or gun policy. Imagine a President Kerry prohibiting ads in support of the right to keep and bear arms while spending taxpayer money to run ads in support of gun control. Congress has paved the way.
The free exchange of ideas without government censorship is essential to the preservation of a free society. There is still a chance, however, that free speech will prevail in the end.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday heard arguments in a case brought by the Drug Policy Alliance and other groups, challenging the Istook Amendment on free-speech grounds.
Additionally, with enough pressure from voters, Congress could be persuaded to repeal the Istook provision this year. Our sons and daughters are dying to promote democracy. Congress needs to stop undermining it.
Bill Piper is director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that promotes drug policies "grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights."
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