‘Get money, spend money’: Should Citizens United v. FEC be overturned?
The United States got a mini-reality check when a 2014 study by Princeton professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern professor Benjamin Page concluded that the U.S. more resembled an oligarchy than a democracy.
That seems harsh at first, but when the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money is viewed as a protected part of political speech, it’s hard to be surprised.
There’s no correct way to soil the romance between the U.S. and the First Amendment. Perhaps this country’s greatest source of bragging rights, our beloved freedom of speech, isn’t actually free at all. Because here, you can speak your mind and boast your opinions as long as you want, but the downside to all this is nobody will ever going to hear you.
Wealthier organizations and, in some cases, even individuals, drown out campaigns and transform politics into a race centered on their own interests.
The reality is money is about as much a form of speech as a microphone. In politics, it amplifies messages and spreads the words of speech across a constituency. It’s an electoral device that gives campaigns access to more forms of communications. It makes people hear one’s speech.
None of this, of course, makes either microphones or expenditures “speech” within themselves. Both of these are properties that are owned; they are tools which merely strengthen the scope of speech.
But suppose that money really does count as speech in and of itself instead of a property which buries other voices to the point of censorship. The argument then becomes whether corporations have the same constitutional rights as individuals.
In the majority opinion of Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that, in fact, they do, as they are “an association of citizens”, and the rights of those citizens remain intact.
The constitutional rights of those citizens still exist even when they are outside of that association; they do not dissipate the moment they leave it. Therefore, granting rights to an association of citizens, when each of those citizens still maintains his full individual rights independent of the corporation, only adds a meaningless layer.
And what then happens to Americans who have neither the time nor proximity to join special interest groups of their choice? Are they to simply accept that they cannot have the same constitutional rights to speech as those who do?
Rights stop being rights at that point— they’re privileges. The First Amendment is not, nor is it ever supposed to, be applied only to those fortunate enough to utilize it.
And it’s exclusively the fortunate who take advantage of the Citizen’s United ruling. In a case where speech becomes a tangible object which can be spent, not only are rights granted to objects which shouldn’t be granted them, they’re actively taken away from those who should be granted them in the fullest measure.
When the First Amendment is something that can be bought, what happens to those who can only afford to watch others exercise their rights?
Austin Graves is a senior history major from Sioux Falls, S.D.