21 January 2010

Free But Not Equal Speech

A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that there is no limit on the amount of money that corporations, labor unions and similar institutions can spend on political advertising. This determination emerges from the case of the filmmakers who wanted to advertise their anti-Clinton documentary too close to an election day for existing standards. I actually thought that those filmmakers were getting a raw deal, because I don't think a documentary denouncing a political candidate should count as electioneering unless the producers explicitly endorse someone else. To assume that a denunciation of one candidate implicitly endorses another particular candidate is Bipolarchy thinking. Straightening out this case should not have required the sweeping ruling that the Court delivered today. The reactionary justices were most likely looking for an excuse to liberate corporate America from the supposed straitjacket inflicted on it by overzealous politicians. Justice Kennedy has condemned limitations on corporate or institutional spending for political causes as "thought control," arguing that government has no right to stigmatize any political expression as untrustworthy. As usual, those who reject any limit to the role of money in politics miss the real point, which is that unlimited political spending tends to undermine the equality of free speech rights upon which its utility for representative democracy depends. Unrestricted political spending inevitably creates a class system of political expression. My blog can't reach as many people as a commercial on national television, and just as the American Bipolarchy prices competition out of the market, my ideas are bound to look inferior or insignificant compared to those which, regardless of merit, achieve legitimacy by appearing in the most popular and expensive media. It's simply impractical for me or a million other people to demand our turns on national television, so the opinions and assertions of those who can afford maximum access will go less than thoroughly challenged in the "marketplace of ideas" unless the playing field is leveled by restricting everyone's access by limiting the amount that anyone can spend. Somebody should be able to make an "equal protection" argument in favor of limitations. I doubt that even the majority in Buckley v. Valeo intended their equation of money with speech to mean that the wealthy had more right to political speech than other people. But they should have anticipated the consequences.

As usual, pundits will say that there's no cause for worry. The usual statistics will be trotted out showing how often the politicians who spend the most, or for whom the most is spent, end up losing elections. The wisdom of the people and their ability to think for themselves will be affirmed. In my own office a news reporter, a character who has not appeared in my posts before, reacted to the news by saying, "I would never decide how I'm going to vote in an election based on a commercial." To which an editor responded, "But how will you know when you're seeing a commercial?" But the injustice of the Court's decision isn't a matter of the potential indirect result on Election Day. The real injustice is the majority's declaration that the public sphere of political discourse is once again open for sale to the highest bidders.

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