by Derek Cressman, a longtime reform advocate and architect of anti-Citizens United voter instruction measures in California, Colorado and Montana.
Common sense tells us that if money is equivalent to political speech, then that speech is not free. But contemporary campaign finance jurisprudence presumes that paid advertisements, which can indeed disseminate political speech, deserve identical First Amendment protections as the free press. Supreme Court rulings such as Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United v. FEC, and McCutcheon v. FEC have undone post-Watergate reforms to limit big money in politics and have given a small group of billionaires an outsized role in deciding who runs for office, who wins elections, and what issues dominate our political discourse.
I wrote When Money Talks: The High Price of “Free” Speech and the Selling of Democracy in order to draw a bright line between paid speech (which is funded by the speaker and foisted on the listener unsolicited) and free speech (which is sought out and usually paid for by the listener when she buys a newspaper, for example). It’s an instruction manual intended to equip citizens with arguments and an assortment of tools to overturn Supreme Court rulings in Citizens United and related cases. It eschews legalese for plain talk, but includes plenty of arguments that lawyers, academics, and advocates will find provocative.
Once the line is drawn between paid and free speech, some constitutional protections for paid speech remain – as Justice Stevens has eloquently explained. So while we may limit the amount of money anyone spends on paid speech, we may not ban it entirely and must justify the limits with a compelling public interest.
Legal scholars have long debated the extent to which preventing corruption or promoting equality justify some restrictions on paid speech. I offer a third interest: the wisdom of the crowd. For both voters and legislators to make wise decisions about public policy, we need robust but also balanced information from opposing viewpoints.