Sunday, January 24, 2010

Big, Big Money and Freedom of Speech

As you no doubt know, this past week the Supreme Court decided, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that limits on the amount of money which could be spent by corporations (as opposed to individuals) are unconstitutional. You can read the entire decision on the Supreme Court website (link here).

This decision has put me into an intellectual quandary like almost no other in recent memory.

First of all, I am absolutely opposed to limits on free speech. In a representative democracy, the citizens must have the assurance that their right to be heard on issues that affect their lives is not restrained. I've often spoken at public hearings on issues I cared about, and I've always been thankful that I lived in a country that allowed me to do so.

That said, there are some practical and obvious limits that need to be considered on what constitutes protected free speech. Everyone knows that it's illegal to yell "fire" in a crowded theater, for instance, and it's also illegal to incite riots or call for the murder of particular individuals or groups (unless, of course, you are a Muslim, when calls for the murder of infidels are considered not only protected, but downright praiseworthy).

So, what does Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission actually do to the concept of free speech?

If you listen to its backers (primarily, although not exclusively, wealthy Republicans, big businesses, unions, and major political action organizations), it removes a limit on their ability to engage in protected political discourse, and corrects a blatantly unconstitutional infringement of their rights. But I believe a little thought puts a bit different angle on the discussion.

When good old Bilbo stood up in front of a town hall meeting some years ago and argued passionately against a proposal to build a baseball stadium on land less than a mile from his house, arguing that it would cause major traffic congestion and loss of property value for himself and other homeowners, he was exercising his right to free speech as envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. The county executives who would decide on the stadium were there, listened to Bilbo and the other speakers (both for and against the idea), and - eventually - decided to build the stadium elsewhere.

Bilbo spent nothing more than gas money to drive to the meeting and a few hours of his time to exercise his right to free speech. Consider the difference between this and the free speech envisioned by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission...

A major corporation with a financial interest in building the stadium could spend unlimited sums of money to convince the local government in its favor. It could buy full-page newspaper ads, flood the airwaves with radio and television spots arguing its perspective, hire top-tier legal firms to argue its case and public relations firms to burnish its image.

Is the amount of money spent by the corporation Constitutionally-protected free speech as envisioned by the framers of the Constitution? Did they envision that the opinions of individual citizens could be snowed under by the vast weight of effort that could be mustered by the wealthy and powerful?

One might also ask whether, for instance, a labor union ought to be able to spend money collected as dues from its members to support or oppose candidates or issues that some of the represented members might not support.

Last Thursday on the NPR show All Things Considered, Melissa Block interviewed two people representing opposing views of the impact of the Supreme Court decision: former Speaker of the House and conservative advocate Newt Gingrich, and Fred Wertheimer, representing Democracy 21, a group that supports campaign finance reform. You can read a transcript of the interviews here, and it's worth your time to take a few minutes to do so.

One thing that struck me in the interview was Mr Gingrich's repeated emphasis on how the decision would empower under-represented middle-class voters. Ms Block said at one point, "You say that campaign finance restrictions are anti-middle-class. I'm curious how you see this ruling as helping the middle class, as opposed to giving a lot more power to big business. The president said today this is a major victory for powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of every day Americans." Mr Gingrich's answer was this: "...the president was elected in part by labor unions who massed their resources of people, who have no choice but to have their money taken out of their dues. The president spent money that was donated through to a variety of organizations, including, by very, very rich people."

Good point. And is about as dumb an organization as anything the conservatives can muster on their side. Of course, Mr Gingrich did not mention that a variety of other organizations and "very, very rich people" supported the Republican candidate, John McCain.

Mr Gingrich later goes on to say that, "This will, in fact, level the playing field and allow middle-class candidates to begin to have an opportunity to raise the resources to take on the powerful and the rich."

I'm very happy now that he's explained it so well. I'm quite sure that if a true middle-class candidate ... a Bilbo or a Mike, for instance ... decided to run for office, that the removal of limitations on campaign financing will spur big business, labor unions, professional associations, and major political action committees to flock to our banners and support our candidacies.

How stupid does Mr Gingrich think we are?

Big businesses and professional political organizations are not interested in this issue as a question of free speech per se ... they are interested in this issue because it has economic impacts on their interests. Republicans are generally pro-business and can be counted upon reliably to support the interests of the wealthy as the solution to all problems, regardless of their attempt to spin the discussion as a protection of individual rights. Democrats, on the other hand, are convinced that unlimited social spending - without adequate regard the source of funding - is the solution to all problems.

Both are stupid.

This is what drives me batty about this discussion: each side does the exact same thing, but conveniently fails to note this in its sanctimonious denunciations of the evil bastards on the other side.

My personal opinion, for what it's worth (absolutely nothing to conservative or liberal die-hards) is that Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is a travesty of justice that will serve only the interests of big business and major organizations at the expense of Real People. The Supreme Court that in 2005 gave local governments the right to exercise the power of eminent domain to seize your property for the benefit of developers (in Susette Kelo, et al. v. City of New London, Connecticut, et al. Supreme Court docket number 04-108) now gives the wealthy and well-connected the right to overpower your voice in discussions that affect you.

Of course, you could always form your own political action committee and raise a few hundred dollars to fight back.

If you aren't pissed off, something's wrong. I've often said here that there's a big difference between freedom of speech and freedom of smart.

And this ain't smart.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



John A Hill said...

Oh how I DREAD the fall campaign commercials. I hope that they would at least be required to say who is paying for the ads. Think I'll just have to turn off the TV for a month!

Ken said...

This is indeed, a sad day for the hard working middle class American. It's a crying shame so many are to stupid to read this between the lines.

Mike said...

Now you can afford to run for president. We can all liquidate our assets for your campaign knowing we'll get all our money back when you win and appoint us as czars.

I'm putting in for czar of Ted Drews before John speaks up.

allenwoodhaven said...

There WILL be a disclosure requirement, not that will change a whole lot. I believe there is also still a prohibition on direct contributions; all the money will pour into PACs and "issue and/or candidate" oriented ads.

I really like your distinction between freedom of speech and freedom of smart. Too bad so many seem to practice their freedom of stupidity....

Mrs. Geezerette said...

My impression is that lots of big money already flows into the elections one way or the other. Corporations give to both political parties in order to gain favor from the one party that ends up in power.

The Court is doing away with something that invites more restrictions to free speech down the road. The Court is protecting the First Amendment and political speech from possibly being whittled away in time. That is my impression.

I do not know for sure what the ramifications will be in the end. Maybe it will not be as bad as you envision if transparency is there.

I asked a friend of mine what she thought of the ruling. For one thing she said that she has yet to vote for a candidate based on how much money was spent on his campaign.