Marketplace Scratch Pad

Free speech, money and elections

Scott Jagow Jan 21, 2010

The Supreme Court issued a zinger of a ruling today on campaign finance. The vote allows companies to spend as much as they’d like supporting or opposing candidates, and they can air those campaign ads right up until the election. Here comes the money.

From the New York Times:

By a 5-4 vote, the court overturned a 20-year-old ruling that said companies can be prohibited from using money from their general treasuries to produce and run their own campaign ads. The decision, which almost certainly will also allow labor unions to participate more freely in campaigns, threatens similar limits imposed by 24 states.

The justices also struck down part of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that barred union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of election campaigns.

The reaction from campaign finance reform groups is loud and clear. Common Cause calls it the “Super Bowl of bad decisions.” Public Citizen has a new front page on its website: SUPREME COURT UNDOES DEMOCRACY. And a video:

Justice John Paul Stevens said in his dissent, ”The court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation.”

But the Court’s majority suggested this was a First Amendment case — that corporations have a right to free speech that should not be denied. Here’s what Justice Kennedy wrote:

When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.

It’s easy to see why people are so upset, given our recent history with corporate America. This looks like yet another victory for corporations over the little guy. But The Daily Caller says these groups are overreacting:

This hyperbole betrays a belief–common among proponents of restrictions on political speech–that Americans, like lemmings, are merely dull creatures who can be easily led off a cliff. Thus, unless the government “protects” us from hearing corporations’ speech about politics, we’ll always vote in ways that benefit corporations because they will spend lots of money to convince us to do so.

This conclusion is as ridiculous as it is patronizing. If corporations are capable of making the public do their bidding, then why isn’t everyone driving their Edsels to Circuit City to purchase Betamax video recorders?

I find it hard to argue with that in an ideal sense. But practically speaking, this ruling does seem to blow open the door to corporations buying elections — if not in reality, at least in perception.

States are scrambling to figure out what this means for them. Just two days ago, the Wisconsin state Senate passed a bill that would’ve largely banned “issue ads” 60 days before state elections. So much for that. From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

State Sen. Mike Ellis (R-Neenah), an author of the bill who has fought for campaign finance reform for a decade, said the (Supreme Court) ruling was a crushing blow to his efforts.

“Campaign finance reform as you and I have been following it I think is dead,” he said…

“The bottom line is you’re going to have a flood of special interest money which is going to engulf elections,” he said.

And the fallout from this decision could extend far beyond elections — to music, movies, TV, plus many forms of protest. This from Kansas City Star:

In his opinion, Kennedy repeatedly tries to get around the implications of the ruling by suggesting only “political” speech enjoys the broad protections of the First Amendment. That attempt, though, is doomed to fail. In the first place, the First Amendment makes no mention of “political” speech — it protects speech, period.

More important, all speech is, in some ways, “political.” Can the FCC require radio stations to edit out John Lennon’s use of “f***ing” in “Working Class Hero,” one of his most political songs? If not, how can the word be banned in any other song? Do we want the courts deciding whether a tune is “political” enough to enjoy protection?

…How can the courts deny a high school student the right to protest, or a cop to wear a campaign button, because it might be “disruptive,” — but guarantee it to General Electric, whose speech almost certainly will disrupt “governmental entities”?

They can't.

Alright, let’s hear your ruling. Is this a major victory for free speech and the First Amendment? Or a crushing blow to American Democracy?

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