Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Money and free speech

Is money “free speech?” It certainly is according to several prominent lawmakers. But the idea of money as speech, that it can carry over the same rights that go along with it, is a foolish assumption to make.

“Money as free speech” matters because of election fundraising. The idea behind “money as free speech” is that, in order to voice your satisfaction with a particular candidate, you should be able to contribute as much money as possible towards their election campaign in order to indicate to others your endorsement of that person. In other words, you “speak” your mind through your commitment – and investment – in a particular candidate.

To one who is unfamiliar with campaign finance issues, “money as free speech” makes sense when it’s put in those terms. But as a result of that theory, politicians seem to forego their legislative duties, catering to their donors’ wishes rather than their constituents’ concerns.

It can also create a problem of an unintended censorship of opinion. As a consequence of the Citizens United decision made earlier last year, corporations can spend unlimited amounts of capital towards their favorite political causes, including commercials endorsing (or defaming) their candidates of choice. With a barrage of advertisements costing a particular corporation millions of dollars to produce and disseminate, it’s difficult to understand how John Q. Public’s contribution of $50 is going to influence the election, if at all.

The problem with free speech in campaigning is that it’s framing the debate incorrectly; what we truly have is a problem of equal speech, of ensuring that each individual is granted the same opportunity to make their voice heard as much as the next. When we consider it from this perspective, campaign limits make perfect sense in order to preserve free AND equal speech.

If an person is limited to spending $2,000 on an individual or political action committee (PAC) it ensures that the average person’s donations are of similar weight and therefore creates equal speech (if we’re to continue presuming that speech and money are synonymous).

Corporations, which earn profits beyond the means of individuals, should be restrained from creating commercials or donating to individual candidates or PACS; but the individuals that form a corporation should be free to form a PAC themselves, and to donate to that PAC as individuals if they want to promote their corporation’s interests. In other words, corporations shouldn’t have a leg-up on individuals simply because they’re able to make obscene profits that can be spent on campaigns.

A limit on campaign spending wouldn’t be a limit on free speech rights; there are plenty of other ways to voice your opinion on a political issue or candidate other than direct contributions to a campaign. You can organize political protests, write letters to the editor, or set up meetings wherein you and several others discuss the topics at great lengths.

In the end, the size of your wallet shouldn’t dictate whether your speech rights can drown out all others or not – political speech should be accessible by all, not merely a competition to see who can silence whom. Equal access to voice your opinion should be the ultimate goal of campaign speech rights, and campaign finance reform should be an acceptable vehicle to guarantee these rights aren’t infringed upon.

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