Is Money Speech? The lesson of Wikileaks

Contrary to what some believe, the Supreme Court has not held that money is speech, and, of course, the Court is right – money is not speech. But what the Court has recognized, correctly, is that prohibiting people from spending money to speak limits speech, as surely as prohibiting people from spending money to fly, drive, take a train, or buy a bicycle limits travel, or prohibiting a person from supporting his church financially limits the practice of religion.

This is really a simple point, but the complaint that “money isn’t speech” and therefore can be regulated without First Amendment protection never seems to go completely away.

With that background, we noted this story in today’s Wall Street Journal, on the possible demise of Wikileaks, the controversial operation of Julian Assange that specializes in the public release of classified and confidential government and business documents. The Journal reports:

The website—which publishes leaked, sensitive documents—said it is temporarily suspending all publishing operations so that it can devote its resources to battling Visa Inc., MasterCard, Inc., eBay Inc.’s PayPal, Bank of America Corp. and other companies that have prohibited payments to the site since last December.

The last major WikiLeaks release, hundreds of thousands of U.S. government documents about Guantanamo Bay detainees, was in April.

“This financial blockade is an existential threat to WikiLeaks,” Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, said here Monday. “If the blockade is not torn down by the end of the year, the organization cannot continue its work.”

In other words, no cash, Wikileaks.

Now, this is not an endorsement of Wikileaks – we offer no opinion here as to the actions of these private payment processing corporations, have no knowledge if they were pressured to cut off Wikileaks by governments, and venture no opinion on the merits of Wikileaks or any government actions to shut the site down for security reasons.

But what is clear once again is that if you can cut off a person’s or organization’s money, you can stifle their (unwelcome) speech.

And that’s today’s First Amendment lesson.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.