Wednesday, April 7, 2010

How Free is Speech?

The oft-cited First Amendment has fallen amid a bit of controversy lately. As has been well-publicized, the Supreme Court rolled back limits on corporate political donations, deeming this to interfere with freedom of political speech as per the constitution (see NYT article here).

One of the key themes of this blog is to distinguish idealism versus pragmatism. While our linguistic liberties have been legislatively preserved, our first amendment freedoms have been functionally fractured.

By the letter of the law, as a legal person (corporations, not-for-profits, flesh-and-blood people) I have the right to rent a billboard to broadcast to the world my support for political candidate John Q. Public. Similarly, XYZ corporation has the legal right to rent their own billboard arguing in support of John D. Private. All is well from an ideological standpoint: we both can speak freely in favor of our candidates.

Functionally, however, we may run into problems. Suppose that there are five billboards in my town. As a middle-class citizen, I have $500 to spend on my billboard, which happens to be the current rate for billboard rentals. Hearing of my intention, XYZ corporation (presumably wealthier) decides to rent out all five billboards, driving the cost up to $2,000 per billboard, well outside of my price range. While we both have the same legal liberties, I have been functionally "crowded out" from expressing my view on a billboard.

I am left to either find another means of communication, or to seek out somebody wealthier to join my cause. Extending this line of thought, we see that there is some relationship between wealth and making one's voice heard.

Limits on campaign spending help to alleviate this problem (unless the bar is set too high, in which case it doesn't limit much at all). If, for instance, campaign donations (including money spending on advertisements) were capped at $1,000 (this is somewhat arbitrary), then we needn't concern ourselves with crowding out to the same extent.

Although I tend to lean more towards publicly funded campaigns (more on this later), I do think that it is important to respect people's right to use media to promote their causes. As I see it, a low limit (clearly adjusting for cost of living over time) for campaign donations preserves the ability to speak both functionally and legislatively.

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