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Reform act called threat to free speech

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Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will meet in a rare special session to hear four hours of arguments about the legality of new limits on political donations in federal races.

But students at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics got a preview of the debate on Wednesday, at a panel discussion that featured local attorney Randy Dryer, the lead author of a brief written on behalf of supporters of the law.

"What is at stake is whether our government is for sale, whether democracy is for sale to the highest bidder," Dryer said in defense of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, sometimes known as the McCain-Feingold law after its sponsors in the U.S. Senate.

Dryer was joined on the panel by Douglas F. Bennett, a lobbyist who opposes the act as a threat to free speech, and by Kirk Jowers, a Washington, D.C., attorney and an adjunct professor at the U., who spoke in favor of the restrictions.

The complex campaign law restricts the use of "soft" money — unlimited contributions — by political parties. Another provision bans the broadcast of commercials paid for by corporations or labor unions within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

Bennett said he's "very suspicious" of claims that the law doesn't violate First Amendment protections of free speech for the companies that want to come up with cash for candidates.

"To eliminate money but to still say you have the right to speak is like giving a person a car and saying, 'Drive it wherever you want but you only get a dollar's worth of gasoline.' It doesn't make much sense," he said.

Jowers said more, not less, money is needed in the campaign process. The new law, he said, accomplishes that by raising the limits on "hard" money, the legal contributions that can be made by individuals.

"When we're taking out soft money, we're taking about four of these rooms full of people," Jowers said, referring to bulk of recent contributions to the major political parties coming from some 800 donors. "That's a lot of power for a very limited number of people."

Dryer, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues, said the law "doesn't prohibit speech. It limits speech in relatively minor ways." He said now individuals can contribute up to $95,000 over a two-year election cycle. "That's plenty of free speech for me."

Bennett, though, said that isn't enough. He challenged the notion that contributions lead to corruption. "Working with Congress, I have never seen money buy a vote," Bennett said, adding lawmakers are more influenced by their constituents, colleagues and consciences.

The U.S. Supreme Court tackles the issue Monday. Dryer's brief, written on behalf of 42 former members of Congress, is one of 15 filed in support of the law. Another nine briefs have been filed challenging it.

Dryer said he was asked to be the lead author of the brief as a member of the board of the Campaign Law Center in Washington, D.C. Although he won't argue before the high court, he said he's still excited to be a part of the case.

"This will basically shape the landscape of federal elections for the next one or two decades. Maybe more," Dryer said.

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com