Limiting Free Speech (48): Equal Influence, Money in Politics, and “Citizens United”

The US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United correctly emphasized the importance of free speech in a democracy. (There’s a thorough discussion of this point here). Free speech serves to expose government corruption and is the means to hold governments accountable to the people. The people also need free speech to deliberate on possible policies and on the respective merits of political parties, candidates and incumbents. The latter in turn need free speech to make their point and attract support and members. And, finally, political assembly, protest and organization require speech.

So it’s fair to say that no democracy can function without free speech. It’s also important, as noted by the Court, that this speech right should not be limited to individuals. Organizations, such as corporations, labor unions, pressure groups etc. should also enjoy this right. They are, after, all, collections of individuals who may want to exercise their free speech rights in common.

However, this is precisely the main problem in the Court’s decision: politics is already heavily dependent on corporate funding. Giving corporations an unlimited right to marshal their substantive resources for corporate political speech would only increase the influence of money on politics. Enormous amounts of money are already necessary in order to win elections in our present-day democracies, especially in the U.S. Candidates have no choice but to accept contributions from those members of society who have the money, and those are generally private corporations. There’s a persistent feeling that candidates can be “bought” and that, as a result of contributions, the interests of large donors receive disproportionate government attention. This may or may not be corruption, but it flies in the face of democratic ideals that tell us that it’s the people who rule, not large donors.

The Citizens United decision seems to make this situation worse by stating that corporations have an unlimited right to engage in political speech and that they can, for example, fund political commercials endorsing or attacking a candidate. As such, this right should not be controversial since it’s part of the right to free speech. However, many people fear, rightly in my opinion, that corporate speech, because it can use disproportionate financial resources, will drown out the voices of everyday citizens and give corporations a role that’s even more important than the one they have already managed to secure for themselves through campaign contributions. Hence some form of limit on corporate spending should be possible. And this applies to both campaign contributions and corporate political advocacy in favor or against certain candidates. Corporations would keep their speech rights, of course, but we would simply limit the amounts of money they could spend on their political speech. In fact, rather than a limitation of speech as such, this is merely a limitation of the amplification of speech.

Now, it’s in the nature of speech in general that some voices drown out others. Some people have more interesting things to say, some are not interested in saying anything, some are better at speaking or are better educated, and some have more resources or time to speak. However, we do generally try to equalize speech in some way, even in ordinary life. We have rules on etiquette and politeness. We think it’s better if people speak in turns, for instance. We don’t allow the best speakers to monopolize everyday discourse. Also, we subsidize education, and one of the reasons why we do that is to give people the ability to speak their minds.

We usually try to do something similar in politics. Democracy is the ideal of the rule of the people. That means that everyone’s influence on politics should be more or less equal. It’s useless to adopt a principle like “one man one vote” if afterwards we allow asymmetrical speech power to dramatically increase the political weight of one vote over another. We know that this ideal of equal influence is impossible to attain, and yet we try to make influence as equal as we can. Limits on campaign spending and financing are part of that effort: a candidate should not be allowed to dramatically outspend other candidates because that would give him or her a disproportionate influence over the voting public. For the same reason, donors should not be allowed to contribute excessive amounts to a single candidate, because then that candidate would be able to outspend other candidates. Now, why not limit corporate advocacy spending as well?

Of course, campaign contributions to candidates as well as spending on advocacy in favor of candidates are clearly acts of political speech, and therefore protected by default. By donating to a candidate or a party, or by funding or producing political advocacy, you state your political preferences. And the fact that this “you” is not, in our case, a private person but a corporation shouldn’t change anything. A corporation is a collection of private persons (owners, directors or shareholders) and they have a right to voice their opinions collectively, using their collective resources, just like other collectives.

However, all this doesn’t mean that we’re talking necessarily about an unlimited right. If corporations or other entities with a lot of resources (wealthy individuals, labor unions etc.) are allowed to donate without limits or to engage in unlimited advocacy, it’s likely that they thereby “buy” a disproportionate share of influence. And this, ultimately and after a certain threshold is passed, destroys democracy. The beneficiaries of their donations or advocacy will receive more attention during the election campaigns, and will in turn give more attention to the interests of their backers once they are elected. During the campaign, it will seem like the beneficiaries of excessive contribution or advocacy have the better arguments because those arguments receive more attention. Simply the fact that a story is “out there” and is repeated a sufficient number of times gives it some plausibility and popularity. There would be no commercial publicity or advertising if this weren’t true. Flooding the airwaves works for elections as well as sales.

However, are we not infantilizing the public with this kind of argument? Is a voter no more than an empty vessels waiting to be filled by those political messages that are best able to reach him? Or can they see through it all and make up their own minds irrespective of what they hear and see? If they see that a candidate receives large amounts of money from a particular company, isn’t that reason enough to vote for the other candidate? The truth is likely to be somewhere in between. People are neither empty vessels for donors, nor objective arbitrators of political truth. And the fact that they can be partly influenced should be reason enough to restrict the political speech rights of those with large resources – or better their right to amplify their political speech. It’s not as if they can’t make their point. It’s just that they shouldn’t be allowed to push their point. Just like we don’t allow a heckler to silence others, or a bully to just keep on talking because he never learned the rules of politeness.

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