“The fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other.”
–Edward R. Murrow, to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, 1958
Reporters such as those of us at the Missourinet will be paying attention to the United States Supreme Court’s hearings on political speech and campaign contribution limits. We’re not the only ones of course. But those of us whose profession–and therefore whose lives–are under the protections of the First Amendment are always a little more interested when the courts start defining speech or dealing with expansion or limits on that freedom.
Today is the day that SCOTUS (that’s press-speak for Supreme Court of the United States) heard a case that focuses on campaign donation limits. It’s the first time the Supreme Court has considered money as a form of speech since the Citizens United case in 2010 that lets corporations dump unlimited amounts of funds into campaigns as long as those funds don’t go directly to candidates or their committees.
This case involves whether campaign donation limits established almost forty years ago should be wiped out. Those taking the case to the court say limits on donations violate the Free Speech rights of donors who want to give more—in effect, who want to speak more loudly.
Missouri’s legislature several years ago decided the way to solve the problem was to eliminate any limits on campaign donations. At the time, lawmakers argued that unlimited donations coupled with proper reporting of donations would let the public know who was lining the pockets of which candidates who, in turn, might (or we were assured by those who run for office, might NOT) indicate which candidates and office-holders might be in the pockets of donors. That has led to some big-bucks bankrolling of candidates and issues.
The advice Ed Murrow gave to broadcast journalists fifty-five years ago remains an admonition to those of us in this industry likely to become infatuated by our self-importance. But it sounds antiquated in these days of talk radio, yelling television, and personally undisciplined exchanges on the internet, when a large segment of public thinking is directed by those the public believes have “greater wisdom and understanding” because they do have a microphone that extends their voices nationwide.
But Murrow’s comment raises a question in our time that applies to the Supreme Court case being heard today. And it’s a basic one.
Is a rich person’s Freedom of Speech right greater than that of a poor person? Does a large amount of money entitle someone to have Free Speech rights that are greater than those of someone with much less? Does the person whose resources only allow him or her to share their wisdom and understanding with those at the end of the bar have the same Free Speech rights as the person who can afford the microphone that allows them to espouse their wisdom and understanding far beyond that bar? Beneath the issue of political speech that the court will consider is the basic, broader issue of Freedom of Speech generally. Is a specific category of speech bestow on some a greater right than the basic freedom on which it is based?
Is my Freedom of Speech limited because you have the financial resources to drown me out?
Wealth bestows privilege. But should it also bestow a greater constitutional right? And if the court’s answer ultimately is that those with resources have a greater freedom of political speech, what other basic rights are to be unequally distributed because citizenship will be measured by the contents of a person’s bank account?
Are the Free Speech rights of the citizen who can afford a beer at the basement bar less than the rights of the citizen sipping the most expensive champagne in the penthouse?
If campaign donations are considered protected political speech, what good is protected political speech if a citizen cannot afford to buy it?
John F. Kennedy noted, “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
It would seem to some that the rights of others are diminished when the rights of some are allowed to be greater. It would seem to others that any limit on their unlimited political speech diminishes their rights.
The opinion on this case won’t be issued for several months. We’ll be covering the first gauge of the result–the 2014 campaigns.