“For the next 12 months, please shut up” marks an odd rallying cry for any political movement. But that’s exactly what Americans have been told to do by the self-styled “reformers” in Washington, DC. Shut up, be quiet, and absolutely don’t spend money to support the principles and candidates you believe in. Go home, let the elites figure it out, and be afraid, be very afraid, of SuperPACs, whatever these groups are.
Since the Supreme Court decided Citizens United, the case that has reformers’ blood boiling because it found banning corporate and union speech a violation of the First Amendment, more speech has been bubbling up in our national public debate. A note of caution: Some of the speakers are wealthy. Some aren’t. But in reviewing popular media discussion of this electoral season, you’d think the American dream had been replaced with oligarchy supreme. It hasn’t.
It’s true, more money is entering political debates. That means more money is being spent to support speech. They go hand in hand. It is difficult to run an advertisement on MSNBC, Facebook, or in the local paper if you don’t have the funds to do so. But is more speech, even corporate sponsored, even wealthy speech, something to be afraid of? We don’t think so.
Even before Citizens United, huge multinational corporations enjoyed broad free speech rights. They called themselves CNN, Fox News, and the New York Times (who itself endorsed Obama for President in 2008). And corporations who didn’t wear the press hat could afford to hire boutique election law specialists in D.C. to speak just the same, sometimes in a less-than-transparent fashion. That left small corporations and a bevy of non-profit corporations literally speechless.
Now, all corporations, including non-profit corporations like the Boys and Girls Club or the National Rifle Association, can speak freely. And that’s how the average Joe makes his voice heard – by pooling his money together so five hundred neighbors can afford to share their views with the nation at large. That’s something to be celebrated, not cast as the boogeyman of the 2012 elections.
Freeing the grassroots to speak and letting the neighborhood barbershop share its opinion will not summon Armageddon upon us. Most of the popular media have decried Citizens United and later cases for allowing more attack ads and just too darn much speech. Even Federal Election Commissioner Weintraub cautioned that such a “proliferation of anonymous, negative speech cannot be good for our democracy.” But any attack on Citizens United must be based on the premise that the public simply isn’t smart enough to evaluate competing ideas for public policy and the qualifications of candidates for our nation’s elected offices. Poppycock.
Suggestions that the combination of wealth and public political advocacy must certainly spell doom are based more in fantasy than reality. The most recent example is “Winning Our Future,” the popularly complained about SuperPAC that supports Newt Gingrich. It spent over $6 million in Florida, only to see its preferred candidate fall sharply behind the GOP frontrunner, Mitt Romney. There’s a lot money can’t buy – including an election.
While the notion that too much speech is “corrupting” or “destructive” might have support in North Korea, the American tradition stands for a more noble position: “The First Amendment presupposes that right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues, than through any kind of authoritative selection. To many this is, and always will be, folly; but we have staked upon it our all.” Like Judge Learned Hand, we celebrate more, not fewer, voices in our national debate and the continued explosion of the Citizens United effect to free more speakers from the heavy hand of speech bureaucrats nationwide.