With the presidential campaign in full swing, so, too, is negative campaigning.
Two of the most prominent examples are the anti-Bush movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" by Michael Moore, and the anti-Kerry TV ads put out by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT), funded in large part by Texan Bob Perry. The objectivity of both attacks is subject to question.
There will always be attacks in political campaigns. Some attacks will be truthful; others won't. But the last thing we need is government regulation telling us which attacks are true, and which aren't. The responsibility for sorting out the truth - and the difference between free speech and purchased speech - ultimately lies with each individual citizen.
Mr. Moore's movie is closer to the spirit of the First Amendment while Mr. Perry's big-money contributions distort the concept of free speech.
Moore has openly said that he hopes his movie will help lead to the defeat of George W. Bush as president. The film lambastes the Bush administration for being too tough in the Iraq war and not tough enough against the Saudis and protecting the homeland. Moore claims every fact in the film is correct and has offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who can prove otherwise. But his detractors claim that he omits important information, painting a one-sided picture that on the whole is not accurate.
The SBVT aired TV ads with veterans who claim that John Kerry is not being truthful about his role in Vietnam. Controversy over the ads, and a retaliatory Kerry ad blaming Mr. Bush for letting the group run the ads, led the president this week to call for a halt to political ads by independent groups.
One of Senator Kerry's superiors in Vietnam, George Elliot, gave SBVT a sworn affidavit that questioned whether Kerry deserved to win a Silver Star. But, Mr. Elliot later withdrew that affidavit and issued another one that said he had no "firsthand information that Kerry was less than forthright about what he did to win the Silver Star."
Both messages make strong claims, both have been questioned, and it's up to the rest of us to sort fact from fiction. That's the political marketplace in action, right? Not quite. There's a key distinction between these two attacks. Viewers paid to see Moore's movie, while Perry paid to have viewers see his ads. Therein lies the difference between free speech and purchased speech.
Perry provided the swift boat vets with $100,000 of their first $158,750 raised, according to records the group has filed with the IRS. Over the years, Perry reportedly gave more than $5 million to candidates and parties, mostly Republicans and mostly in Texas. It's unclear that anyone would listen to Perry, or find him credible, if he didn't pay to deliver his message.
In today's information age, voters are bombarded with messages, claims, and attacks about anything political. We don't all have the time to investigate every claim launched against a presidential candidate, but we can, over time, grow to rely on news sources to check facts for us.
People who go to see Moore's movies know pretty much what they are getting. Other citizens prefer to get their news from Rush Limbaugh, or the networks. Whatever the source, when people seek information, especially when paying for a book, newspaper, or movie, the marketplace of free speech is at work. We all theoretically have a somewhat equal opportunity to say our piece in the town square through pitching a screenplay or a news release. If the producers and editors that citizens have trusted to seek out the news think that what we have to say is of interest, our voice will be heard.
But when donors pay big money to interrupt what we are otherwise viewing, that is paid speech - and that is where campaign-finance regulations should come into play. We live in an age where the federal candidate who spends the most money wins more than 9 out of 10 elections. Yet the funding for those campaigns comes from but a fraction of all Americans, who are not representative of the rest of us. Paid speech is available primarily to the wealthy few and it is overwhelming free speech and distorting the political marketplace.
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth could take Perry's six-figure check only because the group is operating outside the campaign-finance rules that candidates and parties play by. Liberal groups are doing this too. Progressive Insurance chairman Peter Lewis has given millions of dollars to groups that attack Bush. These groups claim that the First Amendment allows them to use huge contributions for paid speech to influence elections, but they've got that wrong.
The Supreme Court has recently ruled that campaign-finance laws can apply to groups that promote or attack candidates. Both Moore and Perry are doing this, but Moore's movie is more clearly an example of free speech, while Perry's is an example of paid speech that should be funded by contributions that are limited in size to amounts ordinary citizens can afford. Only then will there be honest competition in the marketplace of ideas, allowing citizens to better sort through the truths from the lies on the campaign trail.
• Derek Cressman directs the nonpartisan watchdog organization, TheRestofUs.org, which tracks the role of big money in politics.