The Puzzle of Free Speech and Money

The Supreme Court has ruled that money and speech are interchangeable. They have logic on their side. With money I can buy an advertisement, rent a building to hold a forum, or pay to have my views printed in a book. Take away my right to spend that money, and you have abridged my speech.

Thus, the Supremes say, we can’t limit campaign contributions, even when made by corporations. The Supremes’ vision is of a complete free-for-all of speech, without limitations of any kind (except on non-citizens, and on speech advocating violence or creating unsafe conditions).

I understand this vision of free speech, which focuses on the actions of the free individual. But there is another vision which focuses on the dissemination of ideas. Free speech that fosters our democracy must create conditions where every point of view can be heard. To take an extreme example, you cannot have free speech if you are speaking next to a cement mixer. Or next to a man who is shouting loudly. Your speech gets drowned out. That happens if money can be spent without limit, because an underfunded message gets drowned out in our media culture. Thus truly free speech in which all voices are heard must somehow level the media playing field.

There’s also the consideration of corruption. Political money not only buys speech, it buys politicians. Why do you think Wall Street, after having crashed the economy, stands largely unreformed? They pay politicians (or lobbyists, which is almost the same thing) to make sure they can carry on their profitable ventures without government regulation. And there are many arcane examples of much greater abuse, such as special provisions slipped into the tax code to favor just one company.

The argument in favor of campaign finance regulation is that a truly vital democracy depends on limiting the influence of money, both in buying influence in Washington and in buying a dominating voice through the media. You have to interpret the Constitution in terms of original intent—the intention to create a robust interchange of ideas, rather than the intent to preserve the privilege and power of the well-off. Times have changed, and so must the law.

The Supremes are closer to the language of the Constitution. They have opted for an approach that is easy to understand and simple to govern—no restrictions. Those who want to regulate campaign finance opt for a much more complex regime that requires laws that are subtler and more modulated than reasonable people can expect. Their vision of a more balanced dialogue and a less corrupt government is attractive—and it could make a genuine contribution to our democracy. But practically speaking, can it be done?

I’m torn. I hate the way in which money has come to dominate politics. I think it’s truly dangerous. But I respect the clean simplicity of the Supreme Court’s logic, and I’m dubious about how successful regulation can be in damming up the influence of cash. What do you think?



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2 Responses to “The Puzzle of Free Speech and Money”

  1. Vernon Peterson Says:

    I am not so troubled by the logic of the Supreme Court as I am by the concept of the Supreme Court as it exists. They are appointed; they have a life-time term; and their word is final (except when questioned by Barack H. Obama). How many of their decisions have been 5-4, or 6-3… So I have a hard time thinking about the Supreme Court as a block, but rather as individuals (perhaps not all of them all of the time) with personal and/or politically motivated agendas.

  2. priscianus jr Says:

    The logic of the Supreme Court decision is indeed simple. You might even say it is simplistic. If there is a limit on campaign contributions, yes, an individual’s speech is being limited. However, so is everyone else’s, equally, which means that no one’s speech is being limited relative to anyone else. Thus, while you can spend money promulgating your message, there are limits to how far you can outspend others — which in fact limits THEIR right to free speech.
    It seems tome this is similar to any appraoch that attempts to provide for THE COMMON WELFARE — protecting the public from being taken advantage of unfairly.
    The fallacy is that money is speech. In fact, there is no direct correlation. There is only a correlation in terms an established media market. When Greenpeace stages a demonstration, they don’t pay for coverage, but they get it. So this decision is not about speech, it is about deregulating a market. Show me where in the constitution it describes elections as markets.

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