Free speech

I keep hearing outrage, gnashing of teeth, etc. over the recent Citizens United ruling. I’ve been questioning people as to why they support what I see as an obvious restriction of free speech and the answers seem to boil down to one of the following:

1) Corporations are bad and you can’t trust them.

2) Corporations have too much money.

3) Corporations are not people!

4) People are mindless lemmings that will do whatever ads tell them to do.

Keep in mind that the law in question applied to not only what we consider the typical corporations, but also non-profits (more on this later), grassroots organizations, and essentially any grouping of people. So, perhaps there are some “bad” corporations, but surely there are groups that deserve and need to be heard close to an election too!

Points 2 and 4 are related. It is argued that because some corporations have “unlimited money” that they also have unlimited power over the voters. Why people think that Exxon or Chase have Svengali-like powers is beyond me. Ads can present information, they can never coerce, so why the fear of their ads? Ah, because people are stupid of course. Sorry, I don’t subscribe to this train of thought. Ads will, on the whole, either reinforce people’s priors or they will give them something to rail against. If an ad presents information that changes someone’s mind then surely it was useful and should have been aired.

As to the corporations are not people bit, I think that it relates to point #1. Organizations are groups of people. Those people want to get their point across, that’s what free speech is all about.

Even if those 4 things were true, they still do not provide us with an adequate reason to limit free speech. To see why, we only have to look at the basis of this case. A US district court ruled that ads for a movie about Hillary Clinton violated the McCain-Feingold act because they aired within 60 days of an election. Think about that. Whatever you may think about Ms. Clinton, what does it say about our country when you cannot advertise a film that is critical of a politician? What does it say about the state of political discourse when you cannot get a group of people together with a common cause and then let people know about it within 60 days of an election? That’s what this law was about, that’s why I am glad it was struck down.

And what I can’t help but wonder is why the people that scream about this decision are seemingly happy that organizations like the ACLU or AFL-CIO are also muzzled. Don’t you want to hear what they have to say about the candidates? Don’t you want others to hear that too? This is what it really comes down to, you cannot limit free speech of a particular group without limiting many others. Hence the language of the 1st amendment :

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The founding fathers got it right by not referring to individuals, groups, etc. They knew that any limitation on political speech was harmful. If you want freedom of speech, you have to extend it to everyone, no matter how they group themselves. The alternative is to muzzle yourself as well. Free speech for everyone!

One reply on “Free speech”

Well put, but one slight comment which I feel the need to bring up because of your mention of the Founding Fathers”. The entire subtext of the Federalist Papers pretty much states that the great majority of “the people” are, frankly, idiots. Sure, they couched it in language such as “avoiding the tyranny of the majority” and such cods wallop as that, but the fact remains that they thought the brightest, wealthiest, most educated 5% of the country were the only ones really capable of governing properly.

If you are a strict constructionist thrown into the modern age, the idea of pervasive television ads and radio shows such as Rush Limbaugh’s (or to be fair, formerly like Al Franken’s”) being able to convince people to blindly follow a primrose path should scare the hell out of you.

One final tangent: corporations are practically people, according to the law. They were designed that way to legally separate them from and protect their owners in the event they were sued in a court of law. Now, do big corporations with vast resources abuse this protection? Frequently, but said protections must exist to protect those without vast resources.

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