Is Money Equal to Free Speech?

by Carline Shaw, Treasurer LWVJC

Is money equal to speech?  The Supreme Court decided it was in 1976 when they struck down limits on campaign spending that were included in the Federal Election Campaign Act that was passed in 1971 and amended in 1974.  What is even more interesting is that they decided they couldn’t limit what campaigns SPEND, but it was still OK to limit the donations they received!

This was only one of the interesting concepts we learned when LWVJC hosted a Money in Politics Consensus Meeting at Hospice of the Panhandle 21Nov15.  LWVUS provided copious information on their website, and Organizer Lynn Yellott called on David Hammer, Neal Barkus, and Bonnie Sitman to present that and additional information to the group for consideration.  I encourage everyone with a deep interest in the convoluted history of changing public opinion and legal rulings on the subject to go to the LWVUS website and read the materials and references provided there.

Since at least 1886 Congress has been trying to figure out how to attain the goal of inciting our elected representatives to support the interests of ALL their constituents, not just those able to donate money.  They made many attempts towards this goal, but most people would say they haven’t attained it.  LWV supports transparency in donations to political campaigns.  This Consensus Meeting was an opportunity for our local chapter of LWV to tell National a little more about what we believe on the subject.

Political Action Committees were first organized in 1944, as a way to get around the Smith-Connally Act of 1943 which didn’t allow funds from labor unions, corporations, or interstate banks to contribute to political campaigns.  The first PAC was to support the re-election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and it collected money from union members instead of the union itself.

The Citizens United Group saw the opportunity created by the 1976 ruling that since it costs money to convey ideas, then money equals speech, and the 1st Amendment doesn’t allow us to curtail someone’s speech.  They argued that the limits Congress tried to put in place were unconstitutional since everyone in business knows a Corporation is an ‘Entity’, and the Supreme Court agreed.  Now we have Super PACs that are ‘issue advocacy’ campaigns, and not subject to the limits on spending or contributions to political parties or candidates that other PACs are subject to.  Their only restriction is they can’t work ‘with’ a campaign.  Again, they are supposed to be supporting an issue, not a candidate.

As technology has evolved we have Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and many other ways to convey ideas without spending money.  We are also getting new judges on the Supreme Court.  Maybe this concept can be re-evaluated in the not too distant future.  Otherwise, what ideas do you have to encourage our elected representatives to not be swayed by large donations?