Quote First Amendment Rights

John McCain is possibly unfit to serve as president, opines George Will, because in discussing campaign reform on a radio show he said:

“But I would rather have a clean government than one where quote First Amendment rights are being respected that has become corrupt. If I had my choice, I’d rather have the clean government.”

This sentiment, according to Will, might contradict the President’s oath to uphold the constitution since the constitution states “Congress shall make no law. . .abridging the freedom of speech.”

Will is suggesting that McCain is calling into question the existence of first amendment rights by placing them within so-called scare quotes. Will, of course, does not come out and say this directly:

In his words to Imus, note the obvious disparagement he communicates by putting verbal quotation marks around “First Amendment rights.” Those nuisances.

But raising the question of McCain’s suitability for President can only make sense under the supposition that McCain’s words reveal a ambivalence or hostility to the Constitution.

If on Jan. 20, 2009, he were to swear to defend the Constitution, would he be thinking that the oath refers only to “the quote Constitution”? And what would that mean?

To place a word or phrase in scare quotes is only to indicate that the speaker or writer wishes to take a distance to the use of that word or phrase. The most apparent interpretation of McCain’s phrase is referring to “those things that my opponents consider to fall under first admendment protection.” That is, there is a dispute betwen McCain and others about whether political donations are covered under the first amendment and whether they are absolutely protected if they do. (And we should, of course, note that in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission the Supreme Court upheld the fundamental ideas and provisions of the 2002 Campaign Reform Act as constitutional despite the plaintiffs claim that it violated quote first amendment protections.)

But Will engages in innuendo and cheap straw man argument dressed in disingenuous rhetorical innocence than consider an idea seriously with which he disagrees.