In yesterday’s Washington Post, Michael Kinsley writes great good sense about free speech and money in politics. (Kinsley, by the way, is one of my very favorite pundits. Although I often disagree with him – perhaps as often as 50 or 60 percent of the time – I find him always to be thoughtful, perceptive, humane, and never banal.) Here are his opening four paragraphs:
On Thursday, the day after the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, The Post and the New York Times between them carried eight separate print articles about the ruling. McCutcheon is the latest in a string of decisions in which the court has held that various limits on campaign contributions violate the First Amendment free speech rights of rich people and corporations. The articles ranged from fairly balanced news reports through only slightly slanted sidebars to open frothing and foaming on the Times editorial page.
Nevertheless, this was all too much for a group of Republican House members who introduced H.R. 2532, the so-called “Freedom From the Press Act,” which would place strict limits on how much a corporation or individual could spend putting out a newspaper or any other medium in which political opinions are expressed. “For too long,” said a news release issued with the text of the bill, “wealthy media companies have been able to dominate the political debate, drowning the voices of ordinary citizens who may not agree with these companies’ elitist views on subjects such as campaign contributions by wealthy corporations. Some of these ordinary citizens are veterans, who have fought for freedom in Afghanistan or Iraq, only to come home and find that their own voices are drowned out by the blowhards on ‘Morning Joe’ or the mandarins at the New York Times. Media corporations dominate the political debate, not just because of money but because they control the established channels of communication. This bill will be one step toward a level playing field.”
There is, in fact, no such bill as the Freedom From the Press Act, limiting anyone’s right to publish a newspaper or broadcast a talk show. But if there were, is it possible that the media might find this bill just a tad unconstitutional? Might they not invoke every cliche of First Amendment jurisprudence, such as “the solution to speech is more speech” (i.e., if you disagree with me, write your own op-ed piece but don’t try to stop mine) or all that stuff about disagreeing with what you say but defending to the death your right to say it? And wouldn’t they be right?
How can anyone say — as people do say, as if this settles the issue — that “Money isn’t speech” and then, in the same breath, ask for money to spread the word about the danger to democracy posed by the Koch brothers, who are pouring millions of dollars into political campaigns supporting their conservative-libertarian point of view? Money spent trying to spread a political message is speech, whether you like the message or not. More money is louder speech, that more people can hear.
Despite being a man of the left, Kinsley’s first instinct is seldom to use government to force others to behave as he fancies they should behave, or to behave according to some social-engineering blueprint.