Citizens United: Mammon or Democracy?

Much is being written today about the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision, extending the right of free speech to corporations. This about-face in legal tradition immediately opened the floodgates for private investment in the management of public political opinion under the security and anonymity of IRS 501[c]4 and 6 organizations. Fortunes can now be marshaled to market political nostrums to voters.

Names like American Crossroads, Americans for Job Security and American Future Fund camouflage both the political intent of these organization and their deep-pocket funders.

So, when in our legal history did money become synonymous with free speech?

The First Amendment assured the right of citizens to speak freely on any subject without fear of arrest, as had been the case in the countries from which they emigrated. It was commonly understood that a free and independent press or an alehouse or soapbox might be the platform for such expression.

For a rightwing so obsessed with never betraying “the intent of the framers,” this new doctrine exposes an ideological inconsistency. Having just thrown off the yoke of the European oligarchies, the founders would scarcely equate money with free speech in their new constitution.

The impact of money is perhaps most famously explored in the classic American film, Citizen Kane. The fictional surrogate for Hearst turns the power of his consolidated newspapers to his own political agenda and career, though it all comes undone when there’s no curtain behind which Kane can hide his political intent.

The framers could not envision the rise of national newspapers or consolidated newspaper ownership, much less radio, TV, cable, satellite and the Internet – the staggering cost of access and the vast wealth of the media’s owners. The right of free speech was framed at a time when halfpenny local broadsheets were the medium. Both the man who could buy broadsheets to distribute and the campaigner working the hustings stood a good chance of reaching prospective voters in his district.

Imagine two candidates on either end of Church Street in Burlington. One speaks into a megaphone and draws a small crowd. The other is rich and has bought a Woodstock-size sound system. His message not only drowns out the other speaker but blankets Chittenden County. He’s also giving away free copies of his books and his chain of radio stations rebroadcasts his message.

Speech is not “free” today. Money buys market penetration. Politicians with and without it do not enjoy equal access to free speech. You might argue that I’m making a case for equal hearing rather than speech, but what is the practical difference?

Do we honestly believe that Murdoch’s $1M donation to The Republican Governor’s Association or Soros’ donations to Democratic causes constitute protected free speech? If we do then we’ve made money the arbiter of political expression. If money is indeed amplitude then how does the poor man speak or, conversely, how is he heard?  If Mammon is really in charge, then God help the still, small voice of democracy.

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