Thursday, April 10, 2014

The cost of free speech

In college I wrote a weekly column for my alma-matter’s Daily Newspaper. (Yes, there was newsprint back then...and yes, my opinion writing is now marked by decades!) I learned in pretty quick order that there's a cost to "free" speech. The University’s longtime Chancellor released, to great fanfare, a list of his 10 priorities and goals for the University. He and the Board trumpeted the breadth, innovation and vision of these ambitions. They came with pretty pictures and graphs. The local television and newspapers parroted the press release. After carefully reviewing the list and all the various supplemental materials, I was left with a question. I used my column to opine on why the University didn’t have anything about academics in their list of goals. Suffice to say my column had a few weeks hiatus. Free Speech – whether it be actual talking, or writing or funding of those who write or talk is one of the most precious rights bestowed on Americans under the Constitution. In fact, it was the first thing to be granted. Recently the Supreme Court weighed in on the cost of speech, and many are wound up about it.

On April 2 the Supreme Court lifted the cap on what an individual can give overall to political candidates. The $2,600 limit to what one person can give to a particular campaign remains in place. What was rescinded is the $123,200 overall ceiling on contributions. Individuals can now give to an unlimited number of campaigns. According to Open Secrets, a well known and well-respected non-profit specializing in aggregating contribution information 591 people contributed close to the ceiling in the 2012 election cycle. It’s not a ruling that will impact a lot of individuals. It will more than likely just change how money flows into campaigns – not the total dollars.


In January 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that “the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, associations, or labor unions.”  The Wikipedia summary goes on: “The case did not involve the federal ban on direct contributions from corporations or unions to candidate campaigns or political parties, which remain illegal in races for federal office.” 


The Citizens United case changed the funding of elections far more dramatically than the McCutcheon case will. It fundamentally redefined speech so that non-persons won the same protections as humans. The lifting of the cap may result in more candidates receiving funding, and overall spending going up, but with the $2,300 cap in place, it’s unlikely to have the same breadth that Citizen’s had.



The two rulings move further away from how I’ve long advocated campaigns should be funded. To summarize prior posts:  Let anybody give as much as they want to any campaign. The giving would have to be in proportion to the person’s earnings:  somebody giving $123,200 would have to earning more than that as a wage basis. Disclosure would be immediate and transparent. Donors have to be registered to vote in the area that the race is. Anybody under 18, corporations, unions, etc. couldn’t donate money because they can’t vote. Donors would have to be able to vote on the race/issue: eliminating out of state, out of community influence. The people impacted by the election/issue are the ones who should vote on and fund the campaign.  How radical!

Writing a newspaper column that pointed out a glaring omission embarrassed my University’s chancellor resulting not only in my column's hiatus, but in a revised list of priorities a few months later. There was a cost to that speech, and it was worth it. Having a few hundred individuals give $2,300 to every possible candidate doesn’t seem to as calamitous as others indicate. There's a better way to fund political campaigns. In all instances, though, there's a cost to Free Speech.

1 comment:

  1. Craig - I really dig your savvy writing and your ability to cut through the bs to the essentials of a situation - and it's heartening to see that, despite the university's initial reaction, they, too, realized the wisdom of your observations. Thanks for sharing this. - Jamie

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