Supreme Court rules: Money is protected speech

Heather Nichols-Haining

credit: E. Johnson

The recent Supreme Court decision to lift the ban on corporate campaign spending is yet another step towards the direction of a corporate-ruled, undemocratic America. This decision was made in the interest of protecting our freedom of speech, but it is questionable whether allowing rampant corporate spending in our election decisions really constitutes free speech.

The Supreme Court seems to equate free speech with corporate spending. They ruled in the 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo and repeated in the recent ruling that “not only is it undesirable to constrain the expenditure of money in political elections, but that such expenditure is speech.”

The equalizing of speech or communication with money implies that speech can be bought or sold as a commodity. Money then becomes a form of communication, without which one cannot be heard.

If money is the means of communication propelling the American public, our decisions are a not a result of a free-flow exchange of ideas concerning morality and humanity, but of an exchange of money, where the state must have some capital gain at stake in its decisions.

Freedom of speech is supposed to be an integral part of our democracy; the free flow of ideas helps us form just laws and decisions. Losing that freedom would have tremendous implications for the future of American policies. Capital gain as a motive challenges the notion of deliberative democracy, where all voices are considered and decisions are reached collectively.

Instead, the capital gain model suggests that those without money have less of a voice; thus there will be little incentive to provide them with rights or protection.

The implications for people living in poverty or for children without money are staggering. There may be little motivation for the state to protect their rights. We have already seen situations in cities across the country where people are encouraged not to give money to panhandlers because it may hurt tourism. In this situation, even the money of the tourists is worth more than the panhandlers, who live under the state and thus should be accorded its protection.

The recent ruling means that the important actors, the people making the big decisions, are going to be the corporations and whoever can contribute the most money. There is increasingly little room for the voices of the poor. With the recent increasing wealth gap between the rich and the poor, the size of the working class is growing. At the same time, the size of the wealth pool for the rich has been growing since the ’70s. If money equals speech, this means that the rich are rapidly gaining stronger voices and a stronger say in our government.

As money becomes a stronger means of communication, what political leaders and ultimately the general public perceive as important shifts from the protection of rights to an embrace of what is most lucrative.

As Harvard Professor of Law Patricia Williams puts it, “The harm I see in all of this is that it puts reality up for sale and makes meaning fungible: dishonest, empty, irresponsible.”

The moral implications are staggering: The voices of the poor are not as important as the major corporations that can afford to spend more towards elections. Our rights and laws are not free; they are commodities that can be bought, sold and exchanged for monetary gain.