If Money Equals Speech, Does Speech Equal Money?

Salem Harbor




(NOTE:  The following post is adapted dramatically from a comment and a reply to another comment regarding a letter that appeared in the Salem News. The letter was written by a member of MA Move to Amend, a mission I wholeheartedly endorse.  Some of the reply comment appeared separately as a Facebook post and has not been altered very much.)

The Supreme Court’s recent McCutcheon ruling allows individuals to donate up to the current limit an amount of money to an unlimited number of candidates. This erases the limit set on the number of candidates one could finance . Of course this creates some new problems in our electoral process. Many we can anticipate, and probably just as many we can’t. It is possible that some aspects of the ruling may even create some positive effects, but for one reason alone, the negatives absolutely outweigh the positives. The overwhelming amount of expenditures being made in electoral campaigns cannot be seen as anything but a negative trend. I make this point not only on moral grounds, but also on sound economic principles.

The law was put in place to prevent wealthy individuals from affecting not only the outcome of the election, but also the results of a federal election. The outcome being the winning candidate, and the result the winning candidate’s votes in Congress. Historically, the PACs frequently have funded candidates of both establishment parties. Why? Because no matter who wins, they get access to the candidates. By allowing unlimited access, because that is what a campaign donation is, a request for access; wealthy individuals can and will fund both candidates.

And the reason for overturning the maximum number of funded candidates? Free speech. The logic somehow is that the money provided to a candidate so that the candidate can get their message out is free speech, The very same free speech as protected in the US Constitution. (I know my choice of  language is somewhat a subliminal negative message about the ruling, if it offends you; get over it.) Really? So I can go into Macy’s, go up to the clerk at the register with a cart full of clothes and then proceed  to pay for the clothes with a 2 hour speech, or perhaps if I use a lot of big, gotta look that one up in the dictionary words, I only have to speak for 15 minutes! I know, just because money equals speech does not mean that speech equals money. But, if I silently gave money to a cop after he (hypothetically, of course) pulled me over speeding isn’t that a closer example to this SCOTUS ruling?  Or am I trying to influence the cop into not handing me a very expensive speeding ticket?

No, money provided to a candidate can be used for the candidate to exercise her right to speak freely, but it has nothing to do with the donor’s right to speak freely. In fact, just the opposite. When I speak (or write) in favor of a candidate, then the words of endorsement are mine. I am responsible for the content, not the candidate. When I fund a candidate, the opposite occurs. I get to speak to the candidate to influence her. And the speech is mostly private, not public. The more funding, the more private. Are you cynical yet, because thee is one last point. Even though there are dollar limits on the amount you can spend on any one candidate, that doesn’t stop the average influence seeker from finding party organizations to buy influence from. The amount of direct, legal influence a seeker can use to gather access is essentially unlimited.

Gaining influence over our political leaders is effectively described in the Constitution.  The right to assemble is an allowed form of influence.  And so isn’t the right to speak and write freely. But, nowhere does the Constitution equate speech or press to money or wealth. In fact, The Court has ruled that the right to vote cannot be associated with any sort of poll tax.  Money as speech is an artificial construct of the Supreme Court and the Court has taken that construct beyond any reasonablele limit. We can speak freely, but not all the time. Falsely shouting fire in a crowded area is prohibited speech that endangers others. Making false accusations in print may make one subject to a libel suit. Assembling to commit violence or even assembling without permits are not allowed. Our freedoms have limits and we depend on the Congress to define them, and the Court to name them. The McCutcheon case does the exact opposite, Congress had defined the limits to the concept of money is speech, a concept defined by the Court. 

What are the limits to money is speech? I would say that Congress determined that limit is 18 candidates. Perhaps that limit is too high, but the question can also be asked at what decibel level is it OK to speak the word ‘fire’ in a crowd?

That is the type of analysis the court is supposed to make. At what limit does the campaign empowerment and ‘gratitude’ that comes from an unlimited amount of money effectively become a bribe? How about the donor that gives both sides the maximum amount? Isn’t it obvious that the donor is expecting one of the two major party candidates to return the favor? Very rarely does large sums of money go to one major party and also a small one. Isn’t that using one’s wealth to squeeze out points of view not held by either party an obvious and negative influence on our elections? Doesn’t allowing by multiple rulings virtually unlimited money into electing people divert from our economy more productive uses of that money.

There is much more that is wrong with this decision, as well Citizen’s United and the Voting Right’s act. In my mind, these 5 Justices need to answer in a public hearing. There is only one kind of hearing that will force the 5 Right Wing  justices to prove to Congress that they overturned standing law on sound Constitutional grounds. That would be an impeachment hearing. These 5 need to be impeached and if they cannot explain themselves sufficiently, they lose their jobs and their rulings are nullified.



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