Sliding down the slippery speech slope
Published on -6/21/2012, 9:09 AM
It's presidential season, so again pundits are indignant that money is spent on politics. Spent by corporations! And rich people! Because the Supreme Court allowed that, "2012 will be a miserable year," wrote the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne
It might be a miserable year -- but if it is, it won't be because corporations spend on politics. And anyway, they have a right to spend.
In politics, money is speech.
The very first amendment that the Founders chose to add to the Constitution couldn't be more clear: "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech ..."
Yet most people support laws against political speech -- when they don't like the speakers.
Asking government to regulate political speech is a poisonous idea. Politicians naturally think that people who challenge their power should be restrained. Sen. John McCain led the majority who championed "campaign finance reform" that, among other things, forbade anonymous donors to run ads in the crucial weeks just before elections (when most voters finally pay attention).
My ABC colleagues loved McCain-Feingold. Some conservatives think journalists like the law because it exempts media corporations. But I think it goes back to our gut instinct that corporations are bad and rich people spending money to influence politics is very bad.
But political (and religious) speech is exactly what the Founders were eager to protect when they wrote the First Amendment. It has been nice to watch the Supreme Court overrule McCain-Feingold piece by piece.
In 2008, a court ruled that TV ads for a nonprofit corporation's critical documentary about then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton violated McCain-Feingold. When the Supremes overturned that ruling, saying that corporations and unions may fund political ads, the mainstream media were so upset, they sounded like there had been a coup.
The New York Times said the decision "strikes at the heart of democracy." The Washington Post quoted someone saying it "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions."
The swing justice, Anthony Kennedy, was right to say: "When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful."
He also said, "Political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it."
The American Civil Liberties Union agreed, but most progressives condemned the Supremes for "judicial activism." I thought progressives favored free speech. I was wrong.
People's stance on free speech often depends on whose ox is gored. In condemning the decision, the offended progressives engaged in amazing mental contortions. It "was wrong because nothing in the First Amendment dictates that corporations must be treated identically to people," said the editorial in The Washington Post. Don't progressives realize that corporations (and unions, which also had their speech rights protected) are associations of individuals -- individuals who have rights? Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was mocked when he said, "Corporations are people."
But Romney was right.
One need not be a fan of corporations to see that restricting anyone's speech is dangerous. One government lawyer said that even corporate-funded books favoring candidates could be illegal. That should scare progressives -- the Federal Election Commission put an anti-Bush book written by George Soros under scrutiny. Laws limiting speech have been used more often against radicals than against the corporate establishment.
But the progressives' campaign goes on. The Supreme Court right now is revisiting this issue because Montana's Supreme Court ruled that Montana can ban corporate spending on state politics. Sens. McCain and Sheldon Whitehouse filed a friend-of-the-court brief claiming that allowing corporate speech would bring a "strong potential for corruption and perception thereof."
Right, as though politicians don't routinely constitute a "potential for corruption" all by themselves.
It is shameful that leftists let their hatred of corporations lead them to throw free speech under the bus. There is a smarter way to get corporate money out of politics: Shrink the state. If government has fewer favors to sell, citizens will spend less money trying to win them.
John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network and author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity."