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New ACLU Student Chapter Sponsors Lively Debate

New ACLU Student Chapter Sponsors Lively Debate

The Law School’s newest student group, a chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, hosted a debate on campaign-finance reform for its inaugural event this spring. Burt Neuborne, the John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law and legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice, faced off against long-time friend and colleague Joel Gora, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School and general counsel to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The topic: campaign-finance reform and the First Amendment. Professor Neuborne, a national leader in the effort to reduce the role of money in politics who helped craft the Supreme Court brief in favor of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill, argued that America’s commitment to political equality requires the government to prevent wealth from distorting democracy. He stressed the risks to democracy if nothing is done to limit the power of money to buy political influence. “People think voting doesn’t matter because money talks and they don’t think they can have an impact,” he said. “If we can’t get public funding, we have to have limits…or we’re going to condemn ourselves to a slow erosion of democracy.”

Professor Gora, a ground-breaker in the fight against restrictions on campaign funding (which his organization considers a violation of the First Amendment) argued that America’s commitment to freedom of speech requires the government to stay out of regulating political communication. He stressed the dangers of allowing government to regulate something as crucial as campaign speech. “What is the best way to run our democracy?” Gora asked. “We differ on whether limiting funding is the way to achieve it. Free speech and funding First Amendment rights are not the enemy of democracy—they’re the engine of democracy.”

The debate was heated but good-humored. Gora noted that Neuborne had signed the brief in Buckley v. Valeo back in 1976, a case in which the lawyers argued there should be no limit on campaign finance. Neuborne countered by reminding Gora that one is never too old to reject past errors. The two old friends closed by agreeing to disagree—and to enjoy their exchanges.