Lane Filler: Free speech for some but not for all?

04/15/2014 12:00 AM

04/14/2014 6:31 PM

It’s interesting that some of the most powerful newspapers in the United States think the only corporations with an unlimited right to political speech are newspapers.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, many papers used their editorial pages to harpoon Mitt Romney or Barack Obama daily. What was the monetary value of this political speech on widely read pages? Tens of millions? Hundreds of millions? Billions?

But the editorial boards of many of these newspapers have also blustered at two landmark Supreme Court decisions, Citizens United and McCutcheon, that allow corporations or people other than themselves to promote such speech. So what are they gnashing their teeth about?

Let’s recap Citizens United, since hardly anyone remembers (or ever knew) what the case was actually about.

Citizens United, a nonprofit lobbying group, wanted to produce, promote and show a movie about Hillary Clinton while she was running for president. There is no reasonable reading of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”) that would let the government stop people, or a group, whether funded by individuals or corporations, from producing, promoting and showing such a movie.

If corporations and other groups don’t have speech rights, did Miramax Films and Lionsgate Entertainment have the right to make and release Michael Moore’s George W. Bush-bashing movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” in the middle of the 2004 election? How did corporations have the right to release “Bulworth,” “Fog of War,” “Jarhead,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and all the other expensive political cinema?

Luckily, five of the nine justices understood this. The other four leaned the other way because they fear unlimited political spending by rich people and corporations.

Well, who doesn’t? It’s terrible. It drowns out the little man, to the extent that anyone can be drowned out in the Internet age. It floods politics with cash, often from those who want things from the candidates.

Early this month came a new decision. The Supreme Court said people can contribute the legal limit to as many federal candidates as they want without worrying about an overall cap of $123,000 every two years that had been the law.

Again, editorial boards, allowed to use their valuable space to comment on any and all races, were outraged that others would be granted the right to affect so many races.

The problem is that the arguments on the two sides are entirely at cross-purposes. We “First Amendment at all costs” people are fighting for a principle, understanding that some of the outcomes of enforcing that principle are undesirable.

The “cleaner, less financially driven politics at all costs” folks are fighting for an outcome, understanding they have to give up the principle of the First Amendment to do so.

But eroding a bedrock principle like free speech in the hope of getting a better outcome, like elections less dominated by money, invariably has the opposite effect. Once you start shutting people up, doing so gets easier and easier to justify, until even the newspapers that begged to have people silenced are silenced themselves.

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