I got an email today asking for money to spread the word about sudden climate change. I didn’t have anything to contribute, but I’m glad that people are pooling their money to influence public opinion and, maybe, public policy in this area. I consider us lucky to have a law protecting our right to do that.
It’s the First Amendment to the Constitution, and it says Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. Keeping in mind that it’s just words on paper, we understand that those words have awesome power. They’re not phrased to create a right but rather to impose a prohibition. There’s no ambiguity about them. All manner of speech is protected from government censorship, regardless of the source. It’s given us a remarkable range of opinion on every conceivable issue.
There’s a movement to carve out exceptions to this critical prohibition. Concerned about the ability of money to influence elections, the amenders want to exclude corporations from the protections of the First Amendment. It’s not clear why corporations are singled out for exclusion, except that they’re a convenient form of shared ownership in today’s world. If they become inconvenient, rich people will find other ways of pooling their assets to control us.
The amenders have nothing to say about whether people who can’t resist political advertising should be trusted to amend their charter. Nothing to say about these same people’s plenary power, under the Constitution as it stands, to separate rich people from some of their assets for the good of the country. Nothing to say about the possible consequences of government regulation of a category of speech or about the ineluctable pressure to expand such regulation and curtail mass expressions of opinion.
Try writing an amendment that abridges the right of Bank of America or the National Rifle Association to criticize a candidate or policy without also abridging the right of your club or interest group to do the same thing. It’s an impossible task, and the people who are concerned about the influence of money over politics could spend their time more profitably devising ways to separate the 1 percent from some of their holdings and inventing a school curriculum to teach kids to resist advertising and understand politics.