More speech

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on January 23, 2010

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that when the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech” that it actually meant that. At issue was a movie made by Citizens United – a corporation – that attacked Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Because Citizens United is a corporation (even though one formed for political reasons) it was barred from advertising the film that was slated to run on video-on-demand.

The court finally started to get this stuff right. For years, politicians in the name of anti-corruption (but really pro-incumbency) has placed restrictions on what is supposed to be the most free of speech – political speech. It was getting to the absurd point that nude dancing enjoyed more protection than a group of citizens banding together to speak out on issues of the day.

But many on the left, including the President (the big lying hypocrite who piously defends campaign finance reform even though he became the first presidential candidate post-Watergate to refuse to accept the public limits on campaign expenditures), decried the decision as the “end of democracy.”

Driving home from work the day the decision was handed down I could only listen to about 10 seconds of the local talk radio program because the first caller whined that “our democracy had just been destroyed.” (Yes, the radio station he was saying this on is corporately owned.)

The ever-predictable New York Times – interested in maintaining the media monopoly on free speech – decried the ruling.

As a result of Thursday’s ruling, corporations have been unleashed from the longstanding ban against their spending directly on political campaigns and will be free to spend as much money as they want to elect and defeat candidates. If a member of Congress tries to stand up to a wealthy special interest, its lobbyists can credibly threaten: We’ll spend whatever it takes to defeat you.

Yeah, too bad the New York Times (a corporation) will now have some competition when it comes to running thinly sourced stories alleging affairs on the part of disfavored candidates. Blowhard Keith Olbermann went ape over the decision on MSNBC – also a corporation.

I found one complaint, recounted by National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru over at his Washington Post forum to be particularly hilarious.

The Court has blocked the public, acting through the legislature, from addressing the unequal political power different people have.

Yeah, Congress was doing such a good job at equalizing the power between this blog and MSNBC.

Since when did “equalizing” political power become Congress’ job?

The fact is that the campaign finance restrictions vis a vis corporations had just the opposite effect. A wealthy individual could spend all the money he wanted running ads, producing a movie, promoting a book without the “anti-corruption” campaign finance laws touching him. The “little people” who would have to band together – as a corporation, perhaps – to accumulate a similar amount of money were barred from doing so.

The answer to the possibility of “bad” political talk is not to ban the bad, it’s to free the good. The answer is always more speech, never less.

For a good analysis of the ruling, check out Ilya Somin’s post over at the Volokh Conspiracy.

***An Addendum***

By a vote of 8-1, the court upheld the disclosure requirements of the law with Justice Clarence Thomas the lone dissenter. A year ago, I would’ve enthusiastically sided with the majority. Today, I find myself in Thomas’s corner.

Knowing the identity of the speaker can act as an intellectual short-cut to determining how much weight to give a particular argument or position. Generally, if Chris Matthews is for it, I’m probably going to be against it. For that reason, the disclosure requirements are a good idea.

But the First Amendment doesn’t say: “Congress shall require those exercising their freedom of speech to identify themselves.” “The Federalist Papers” were first published anonymously – the Founders had no animus towards keeping one’s identity hidden.

Much more recently, the way that many militant gays here in California have behaved in the wake of the passage of Prop. 8 (which defined marriage as one man, one woman) makes a strong case for Thomas’s position.

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