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Traffic amendment a blatant attack on right to free speech

Last week, an important case regarding free-speech rights was argued in federal court in the nation’s capital. Although it attracted little attention, it has the potential to widen the debate about federal drug policy — and has already highlighted the intellectual weakness of the most fervid drug warriors.

At issue is the Istook amendment, tacked onto a transportation bill by Oklahoma Republican Ernest Istook. It cuts off federal funding from local transit authorities that accept advertisements critical of current marijuana laws.

Subsequent to the amendment’s passage, the ACLU, Change the Climate, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project submitted a proposed ad to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. A group of ordinary people behind bars appeared under the headline, “Marijuana Laws Waste Billions of Taxpayer Dollars to Lock Up Non-Violent Americans.”

The transit authority rejected the ad and the groups filed suit seeking to have the Istook amendment declared unconstitutional.

Based on the state of First Amendment law it should be a slam-dunk. The First Amendment’s free-speech guarantees are interpreted in court as requiring the government to have a compelling — not just justifiable but compelling — policy reason to restrict freedom of speech.

In court, government lawyers argued that federal money always comes with strings attached. The plaintiffs argued that a string that restricts free speech is not permissible. The groups don’t seek federal funding for their message, but want to pay for it themselves.

The case should be decided in a few weeks.

Perhaps more significant than a misplaced desire to use taxpayers’ dollars to stifle dissent is what the Istook amendment reveals about the intellectual bankruptcy of passionate drug warriors. An advocate who believes he has the stronger argument, one that is likely to prevail in open and honest debate, seldom tries to prevent his opponents from even making a case. In most cases a confident advocate is eager to debate, to expose the weakness of the opposition case.

Obviously, Istook doesn’t believe the case for marijuana prohibition is intellectually overpowering. And, of course, he’s right.