A Philosopher's Blog

Is Spending Speech?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 7, 2011
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A while back the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that campaign finance spending limits violates free speech. This ruling seems to rest on two key assumptions. The first is that corporations are persons and are thus entitled to free speech. The second is that spending is a form of free speech and that it should not be limited.

In regards to corporations being persons in regards to free speech, this would seem (as I have argued elsewhere) to entail that they must be treated as persons across the board. This, as I have argued, would seem to lead to absurdities that thus expose the absurdity of treating them as persons in this regard. Naturally, there can be good reasons for allowing collective rights-but these do not require that the entity be regarded as a person but merely as a collection of people.

Also, there is the obvious concern that granting corporations rights is unfair because it gives groups an extra advantage over an equal number of unincorporated individuals. For example, if a corporation has 500 members, they can make 500 contributions to a candidate and also another contribution as the corporation. 500 individuals can make 500 contributions, but they do not get that extra corporate contribution. To use an analogy, imagine a store is having a special in which each person gets a free item (like a small ice cream cone). If three individuals go to the store, they each get the item. But, if there are three people who form a corporation, they would get three items plus a fourth for the corporate person. That seems rather unfair. As such, taking corporations as people seems to be a system of miraculous multiplication-it creates extra super-people out of a collection of normal people. This seems both questionable and unfair.

In regards to spending being free speech, that seems slightly dubious. Suppose that spending money for political purposes is considered speech. Now, it is clearly acceptable to try to persuade a politician by speaking to him or her. If spending is speech, then I should be able to try to persuade  politicians by speaking to them with money. However, this sort of thing already has a name, specifically bribery. But, if spending is a form of free speech, it would seem that bribery should be acceptable as a form of free speech. This seems absurd, to say the least.

It might be countered that the contributions cannot be direct bribes in that there can be no direct giving of money in return for specific actions or promises to act. However, it would be extremely naive to believe that campaign financing is not intended to do just that-namely to influence behavior by providing money and support.

However, suppose that spending is taken as a form of speech and thus protected by the right of free expression. It does not, of course, follow that such speech should be free of limits. After all, limits are justly placed on speech in other cases. The stock example is the yelling of “fire” in a crowded theater in which there is no fire. In the case of unlimited spending by corporations, this does serious harm to the political process by increasing the influence of corporations far beyond the number of people who make them up and thus proportionally decreasing the influence of those who are not in control of corporations. To use an analogy, it is on par with having a public discussion in which the people controlling corporations are allowed to use sound systems up on the stage and individuals are expected to try to shout out their views  from the crowd.

As might be imagined, I believe that it is a mistake to allow corporations such unlimited spending.

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9 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 7, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Let’s be honest. In America today there is no law that isn’t created and conditioned by people and cultures. There is no universal standard of right and wrong. Washington will do whatever it wants to do and it dares us to stop it. Not by law but by force. In a nation that rejects granting personhood to actual human beings, however small, with philosophers in tow who endorse this inhumane position, who really cares about campaign financing. When it comes to Washington, the word “bribery” is correct; as are the words: “thievery” and “murder”.

  2. FRE said, on December 7, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    Spending is at least sometimes a form of free speech considering that spending is sometimes required for speech to have an impact. If one can speak but lacks the funds to broadcast the speech in some manner, then it is not necessarily free speech. For example, I may in theory have the right of free speech and be permitted to say anything, but if I cannot spend the money necessary to get an audience, then the right of free speech in meaningless.

    This is not to say that corporations should in all cases be treated as persons; probably they should not be. Some way should be found to prevent corporations from exerting undue influence, but we must be very careful that in doing so else we do not create worse problems.

    • anon said, on December 7, 2011 at 4:41 pm

      You have a right to say what you want but you don’t have a right to get on tv to say it.

      • FRE said, on December 7, 2011 at 5:05 pm

        Let’s see how far this could be carried.

        Perhaps we all have a right to free speech provided that we cannot be heard from more than 10 feet away. If that were the case, then the right to free speech would have very limited value. On the other hand, it would be difficult to argue that everyone has the right to speak on TV. The problem is exactly where to draw the line.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 7, 2011 at 6:37 pm

      The right of free speech seems meaningful even without having the money to get an audience. There are, of course, “free” avenues of speech such as public, blogs, Youtube and so on.

  3. WTP said, on December 7, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    “On the other hand, it would be difficult to argue that everyone has the right to speak on TV”. Really? Why not? Having the right to speak on tv is different from being entitled to speak on tv. Everyone has the right to speak on the internet but you’re not entitled to it.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 7, 2011 at 6:40 pm

      True-speech is a negative right (we should not be impeded) and not an entitlement right (no one owes us the means by which to convey our message).

  4. […] Is Spending Speech? (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]

  5. J. Miller said, on December 14, 2011 at 5:47 am

    I think it would be a mistake treat spending otherwise than an accepted and protected form of expression, i.e. speech. Yes, it can easily take the form of a bribe, an expectation that something will be offered in return specifically to the person or group giving the money, however it also takes the form of support for policies that one person or group supports broadly, not in specific self-interest.

    It remains a problem though, so the solution I propose is not to tangle with the issue of spending on the side it’s being addressed now, where motives may be pure, mixed, or negative in the giving. Rather, a limit on the office being sought, in such a way that a candidate disqualifies himself for accepting money from organizations, corporations, unions, etc. Thus, neutering the issue without the problems of regulating how much or who may give. Groups may give, but the check will be returned to sender if the candidate hopes to achieve the office he or she seeks.


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