Media or Not, the First Amendment Protects Your Right to Unlimited Speech

August 3, 2018   •  By Alex Baiocco   •    •  ,

Hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper recently announced that he purchased the Chicago local news site Chicagoist. Part of the Gothamist family of local news outlets, the publication was previously owned by the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade, Joe Ricketts. Ricketts shut down all of the Gothamist brands after writers voted to unionize. WNYC, a New York public radio station, purchased the Gothamist sites from Ricketts in February, but nothing has been published at since November 2017.

The announcement from Chance, a Chicago native, came via the release of a new song, titled “I Might Need Security.” The lyrics offer some insight into his motivations for purchasing the publication. The song is also an example of the type of speech for which First Amendment protections are often most necessary. It’s profane, impassioned, and aimed directly at those in power.

In the song, Chance calls for the resignation of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and “an open investigation” concerning a 2017 Emmanuel proposal that Chance publicly criticized at the time.

The song also goes after Crain’s Chicago Business, the Chicago Sun-Times, and Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner.

Just after mentioning Rauner and the Sun-Times, Chance reveals that he now owns Chicagoist: “I bought the Chicagoist just to run you racist bitches out of business.”

Following the release of the song, Chance said in a statement, “I’m extremely excited to be continuing the work of the Chicagoist, an integral local platform for Chicago news, events and entertainment . . . . I look forward to re-launching it and bringing the people of Chicago an independent media outlet focused on amplifying diverse voices and content.”

Nobody knows exactly what role Chance will play in decision-making regarding hiring and content. But, it’s clear that maintaining a platform for political speech in opposition to politicians that Chance disfavors, and in competition with publications he disfavors, was a primary motivation in his purchase of the news site.

Wealthy individuals own just about every media company. And, oftentimes, the political leanings of the owner play a significant role in the content of the publication. For example, when Rupert Murdoch purchased the Sun-Times in 1984, the content not only became more sensational, it also took a significant leap to the right. (Murdoch sold the paper in 1986.)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with publications having a particular political bent. Even publications that are not intentionally steered in a certain direction often end up forming an ideological viewpoint organically.

Most media companies don’t just publish news. They publish opinion pieces and editorials. And their editorial boards often endorse candidates running for office. They also sometimes tell readers why they should not vote for a particular candidate.

This, of course, means that a for-profit company is spending money on speech expressly advocating for the election or defeat of candidates. The First Amendment protects the right of these companies to take in and spend as much money as they’d like doing so.

It also protects the right of every other American citizen to do the same thing. Which is why the First Amendment requires that super PACs be legal.

A super PAC is nothing more than a group of citizens pooling their resources to speak about candidates. However, unlike media companies, super PACs must register with the Federal Election Commission and report the money they take in and the money they spend on a schedule mandated by the government. They must also report the name, address, occupation, and employer of every donor who gives more than $200. The Federal Election Commission then makes all of this information publicly available online. (Interestingly, WNYC used funds from anonymous donors to purchase Gothamist and its associated sites, including Chicagoist.)

Contrary to the belief of some among the “Fourth Estate,” members of the media have no more First Amendment rights than any other American citizen. In fact, many constitutional scholars contend that the use of the word “press” in the First Amendment was meant to refer to the technology (at the time, the printing press) necessary for large-scale dissemination of speech.

The political speech of both media companies and super PACs should be perfectly normal in a free society. But for some (including, unfortunately, some members of the media), the very existence of super PACs poses an existential threat to democracy itself. The idea that the dissemination of political speech funded by a group of Americans is a threat to liberal democracy makes as much sense as the idea that a free press is a threat to democracy. As noted above, a free “press” probably includes more than “the media” as we refer to it today. Americans who are not employed by media companies, but spend money on political speech, are likely just as much a part of the free press clause as the institutional media.

Furthermore, the First Amendment also protects the right to hear speech and prevents the government from censoring speech based on its source. Which means the government cannot restrict speech just because those funding it do not own a media company.

For those who care about free speech, any call to overturn v. Federal Election Commission, the federal court case that legalized super PACs, should be met with the same resistance as would a call to overturn New York Times v. Sullivan.

Similarly, any call to restrict the right of like-minded Americans to pool resources in order to disseminate their views on candidates should be met with the same derision as would a call to restrict the right of wealthy Americans, such as Chance, to purchase a media outlet for the sake of holding those in power accountable. Every American possesses the right to speak about her government in unlimited quantities and to associate with others for that purpose, whether she is a member of the media or not.

Alex Baiocco

Alex Baiocco

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