The Cornell Daily Sun, self-described as “the oldest continuously independent college daily in the U.S.,” recently published a pro-corporatist editorial in its “Throwdown Thursday” series by Cornell University junior Julius Kairey, who describes the Citizens United ruling as a “triumph of free speech principles over a bipartisan attempt to limit the scope of the First Amendment.” Mr. Kairey also writes a regular column for the paper entitled “Always Right,” an indication of the kind of confidence displayed only by extremists and college students.
His piece is basically another retread of the same old nonsense and straw man arguments we’ve seen emerge from corporate mouthpieces since the Citizens United ruling. He starts out with the false assertion that detractors of the ruling want to “restrict the speech of some so that the relative speech of others is amplified.” That is false. Nobody wants to restrict anyone’s speech at all, ever. What Mr. Kairey describes as “speech” is actually “spending.” And yes, we want to restrict the amount of spending that can be used to amplify speech in exactly the same way that representatives are restricted to the equal amount of time allotted to speak on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Spending money to dominate the airwaves during campaign season is a kind of filibuster that empowers the wealthiest, mostly those spending corporate money, to unfairly drown out the diversity of ideas that all representative democracies depend on for their very survival. If the time set aside for debate on the House floor were purchased, instead of allocated evenly between opposing parties, the wealthiest representatives would buy the most time and prevent the ideas of their opponents from getting the fair hearing they deserve.
The regulations overturned by the Citizens United ruling didn’t go nearly as far as the restrictions in place in the U.S. Congress. There was no “equal time” requirement or restriction on the allotted amount of time that could be used for political speech. The law merely defined as “electioneering communications” broadcast ads that name a federal candidate within 30 days of a primary or caucus or 60 days of a general election, and prohibiting any such ad paid for with corporate or union general treasury funds.
It’s not the speech, it’s the spending. And it’s not even spending across the board, it’s spending on TV and radio, which have limited allocations of commercial time slots available. The notion that “more speech” is always better is not only wrong — try listening to every radio station simultaneously — it’s also the wrong point. There’s only so much prime time commercial space available on any TV or radio broadcast channel. Only the wealthiest can afford to buy the air time during the Superbowl, having more viewers watching than almost any other time in the broadcast year. If the only response to an ad aired during the Superbowl is a response ad buried in overnight repeats and informercials, a bare fraction of the viewers who saw the first ad will see the rebuttal.
People like Mr. Kairey would have us believe that all speech is equal, no matter where it comes from, when it’s spoken or broadcast or how many listeners may be available at any given time. That is simply wrong and denotes a total lack of knowledge of the media landscape. The point of an amendment is not to stifle some speech in favor of other speech, it’s to empower Congress to create a level playing field for the marketplace of ideas. People who use corporate treasuries to amplify their speech have an unfair advantage over those who do not. It’s that simple. This is not a problem that can be fixed by the free market. It’s a problem that demands democratic solutions and one of those solutions is to prevent the airwaves from being used as a means of filibustering democracy out of existence.
Mr. Kairey’s answer to that point is simplistic flattery: “…this final argument is incongruous with what our system of self-government assumes about the people, namely, that they are generally intelligent and have the ability to distinguish between truth and fiction.” Of course people can tell the difference, if they’re given an opportunity to hear both sides. But most working Americans don’t have the free time between work, family and hobbies to spend hours scouring the internet for the truth. And people shouldn’t have to abandon their love for sports or dancing or must-see TV or whatever to have an informed opinion about the civic and political debates of the times.
Mr. Kairey attempts to debunk the notion that spending money should not be treated as constitutionally protected speech: “…to defend the permissibility of limits on the amount of money that can be spent on an election by any of us, as individuals or as parts of groups, is to empower political incumbents to write the rules of the electoral system that is supposed to hold them accountable.” They already have that power. The Constitution specifically grants Congress the power to regulate the “times, places and manner of holding elections” in Article I, Section 4. Incumbency is it’s own reward during campaign season but limiting spending by all parties, including incumbents, would only amount to an advantage if incumbents were legally allowed to spend more than challengers, which would be a direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. And let’s not forget about the gerrymandering that state legislatures routinely engage in every ten years. Not only is this point flat out wrong, and specious, it denotes an incredible naiveté on Mr. Kairey’s part.
Mr. Kairey’s final salvo is the old broken government canard: “…giving self-serving politicians the power to decide how much speech is too much is a cure worse than the disease.” Again, this is not about the speech, but the spending. Congress already had that power until the Supreme Court took it away piece by piece and we’re still here. The Republic did not fall for more than a hundred years of Congress regulating the speech of artificial entities. Are we better off now that we have to explain what an erection is to our children because a drug company can purchase air time during the World Series broadcast? Are we better off now that the fairness doctrine has been replaced by an everything goes brand of “journalism” that allows so-called news channels to lie and omit important facts from their stories?
Yes, politicians are self-serving. Twas always thus and always thus it shall be. But shouldn’t we be channeling that ego into serving constituents instead of big money donors? Shouldn’t we be creating incentives for representatives to answer to the majority of voters instead of the majority of dollars? Whether corporate foils like Mr. Kairey admit it or not, the Constitution was designed to create a “people’s government, made for the people, made by the people and answerable to the people,” as Daniel Webster put it in 1830. Allowing money to corrupt the democratic process undermines the entire foundation of the Republic. The Supreme Court has inflated the First Amendment to a size large enough for the wealthiest corporations to hide behind. But it was never designed to protect corporate wealth and any reading to the contrary is self-serving, anti-democratic and un-American.