Every American knows about the right to free speech. It’s a principle that is deeply ingrained into us from a young age. It’s also a vital part of our national identity as a free people. Yet while we agree on its importance in theory, in practice, the exercise of free speech in any meaningful way elicits skepticism. Recent polls show many Americans support government punishing biased media organizations or limiting offensive speech.
Beyond public opinion, there are even certain types of speech that trigger an avalanche of government regulations, not to mention a chorus of condemnation from activist groups. Want to buy an ad asking your senators to support criminal justice reform? Not so fast, some will claim “money isn’t speech,” so it shouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment.
Want to form an advocacy organization with like-minded citizens and raise awareness about family issues? Well, “corporations aren’t people,” so they shouldn’t have free speech rights. In the literal sense, it’s true that money isn’t speech and corporations aren’t people. But it shouldn’t take long to realize the implications of imposing limits on spending money or organizing. Doing so would basically make the First Amendment useless for ordinary Americans.
Take money, for example. If spending money to express a viewpoint is not protected, then the most impact you can have with free speech is to stand on a chair in a crowded area and start shouting. Reaching any significant number of people requires spending some money. Try posting on the internet without buying a computer, or making fliers without paying for paper and ink. Even borrowing those things would be a “contribution” from someone else. When viewed in this light, it’s no surprise that the Supreme Court has long said that spending money on speech is protected by the First Amendment.
If we do agree that individuals have the right to speak freely and even spend money to spread their ideas, then why wouldn’t that same right apply to two or more people pooling their resources to do the same thing? Americans don’t sacrifice their liberties when they join together. This is why the Supreme Court has acknowledged that when people form corporations, they retain their free speech rights.
Proponents of speech regulation claim that these arguments only came about with the infamous Citizens United decision in 2010. Actually, they came from decades of legal precedent. But this has not stopped activists and lawmakers from trying to undermine these First Amendment rights anyway. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) recently introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow politicians in Washington to limit money that can be spent on campaign speech, as well as give taxpayer dollars to politicians. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) has proposed a bill banning congressional candidates from receiving money from political action committees (PACs).
The latter is a particularly stunning attack on the free speech rights of groups of citizens, since PACs are highly regulated organizations that have been part of American elections since the 1940s and can give no more than $5,000 to a candidate. All they do is allow like-minded citizens to join together and pool their contributions in order to promote candidates or causes.
The proposals of these California Democrats would basically give powerful government bureaucrats the final word as to how much you are allowed to spend to express your opinions. Since controlling money means controlling speech, these efforts would greatly undermine the liberties of individuals and organizations alike.
Imagine a law that limited how much corporate entities like the New York Times and Fox News could spend on broadcasting news or commentary. After all, why should corporations have a right to spend money in a way that influences elections? Of course, this would be an obvious violation of First Amendment protections for the press. But why should similar First Amendment violations for private citizens and other organizations be tolerated?
Make no mistake, despite the insistence that these regulations are only meant to target wealthy donors, they will make it harder for ordinary citizens to navigate complex regulations and afford compliance costs. Allowing Americans to amplify their voices in groups is the best way to increase their influence. Absent the ability to spend money or pool resources, the only ones who could express their views to large numbers of people would be those who don’t need to pay for a public platform (or those rich enough to buy a media company). That basically just means incumbent politicians and celebrities
Denying that the First Amendment applies to associations of people and spending money does not make politics more fair. All it does is insulate those who already have power, make it harder for citizens to express their opinions, and violate First Amendment rights. If Americans truly cherish their free speech, they should reject arbitrary and restrictive limitations on it.
This post originally ran in The Hill on August 25th 2017.