Las Vegas Sun

July 30, 2014

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Sun editorial:

Court deals a blow to free speech

Justices’ ruling sends the message that the rich have a greater right to speech than the rest of us

Many conservatives cheered the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this past week that struck down part of a campaign finance law, claiming it was a “victory” for free speech.

The reality, however, is that the court’s decision is anything but that. It’s a victory for the rich, whose right to speech is protected and expanded by the size of their bank accounts.

Unfortunately, this is the latest in a string of decisions and actions that have continued to undercut not only the First Amendment but also the American form of democracy.

To review: In a 5-4 decision issued Wednesday, the court struck down a law that limits donors to giving no more than $123,200 to federal candidates and political action groups in a two-year election cycle.

Supporters of the ruling, including the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s editorial page, note that the court didn’t touch the federal limit on donations to individual candidates, which stands at $5,200 in an election cycle.

That, however, is little more than a fig leaf that will surely soon fall. (In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas said he would have struck down the individual limit as well.)

It’s baffling that anyone, other than perhaps the rich and their sycophants, would consider this a victory for free speech, particularly anyone who is for open and clean government. But the people who make that argument join the court’s majority in the bizarre belief that money is a form of speech. Thus, they reason, there should be few, if any, regulations on how it’s spent.

That argument seems more fit for a freshman philosophy class than the highest court of the land. Money is not speech, no matter what any court rules. Money can buy speech, such as advertisements, and can amplify speech, but it is a stretch of the imagination to say money is speech.

By equating money to speech, the court saying that the rich have a greater right to speech than other people by elevating their right to exercise it one check at a time.

But because the court sees money as speech, it limits what Congress can do to regulate campaign spending, focusing only on ways to curb corruption or the appearance of corruption.

Somehow, the court’s majority rationalized that its ruling would not give rise to an appearance of corruption. We’ll try to remember that when the big donors spread their cash around to large voting blocs in Congress and then ask for favorable legislation.

Nothing to see here; keep moving along.

Unfortunately, state and federal courts have bought into such fantasies as well. Even before the Supreme Court’s ruling, there were plenty of ways to circumvent campaign finance laws.

For example, the third-party organizations chartered under the IRS’ rules for “social welfare” groups have become major players in campaigns. Corporations and individual donors can give them unlimited amounts of money anonymously. Why? Under the law, the groups are supposed to be focused on educating people on issues and not specific candidates or political campaigns.

Because the courts are afraid to call these things what they are — political action committees — these groups have been allowed to stage open campaigns against candidates, just as long as they don’t say they’re “for” a specific candidate. And no one knows who’s really behind them.

Take, for example, the recent attack ad targeting Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat who’s running for attorney general. A Republican-affiliated group called the State Government Leadership Foundation recently launched a brutal attack ad on Miller. It’s supposedly legal because the group doesn’t tell you whom to vote for, but that’s not hard to figure. (Um, his opponent?)

Should Miller lose, it’s reasonable to think that the group would have influence with the winner. The State Government Leadership Foundation is reportedly spending $500,000 on the campaign against Miller, and that’s important because Miller’s opponent is a political newcomer without much of a war chest.

Should Miller lose, it’s reasonable to think that this “social welfare” group would have his opponent’s ear. But who’s behind the ad? Nobody knows. That’s a real problem, but this is the world that the Supreme Court’s majority and its supporters are creating. Money and secrecy will rule in politics, and those who can afford access will be able to cut their deals behind closed doors.

The old adage that everyone has a right to their own opinion is gone from politics; everyone who has money has a right to their opinion. The rest of us can go quietly away.

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