Free Speech For Me, But Not For Thee

If you haven't been following it, you should make yourself aware of the current effort going on in the Senate to amend the First Amendment to give governments (federal and state) the complete right to suppress the political speech of outsiders and challengers seeking to oust incumbents and change the status quo.   The proponents wouldn't put it in quite those terms, but I think that is a fair description.  Here is a summary dated June 2 of what is going on from Hans von Spakovsky and Elizabeth Slattery on the Heritage Foundation website.

An effort is underway in the Senate to amend the Constitution to restrict free speech by allowing Congress to limit fundraising and spending on political speech. A constitutional amendment proposed by Senator Tom Udall (D–NM) would grant Congress the power to regulate the raising and spending of money in elections. Supporters of this amendment claim that restricting the amount of money that may be spent on political speech and activity is not the same as limiting speech, even though “virtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money.”

Text of the proposed amendment, introduced by Senator Udall in May, would give governments the ability to limit the spending of their challengers right down to zero if they so desire.  They would have unfettered authority to set limits on:

(1) the amount of contributions to candidates for nomination for election to, or for election to, Federal [and State] office; and

(2) the amount of funds that may be spent by, in support of, or in opposition to such candidates.

Leaders of the Senate effort include majority leader Harry Reid and my own senator, the odious Chuck Schumer.  Von Spakovsky quotes Reid justifying the proposal on the basis that “the flood of special interest money…is one of the greatest threats our system of government has ever faced.”  Or here's the quote from Schumer: “It’s time for Congress to act—to reassert its role and protect the right of all Americans…without the risk of [laws] being eviscerated by a conservative Supreme Court.”

You might say that this effort is not going anywhere -- it will never get a two-thirds vote in the Senate, nor will it even come to a vote in the House. 

But meanwhile over at the U.S. Supreme Court a bare majority of five justices has the power to make the First Amendment into what Reid and Schumer want it to be just by deciding the next case.  And four of those votes -- the four so-called "liberal" justices -- are already on the court.  To judge from the dissents in recent cases, the four so-called "liberal" justices fully support the proposition that all expenditures supporting speech challenging the status quo are subject to limitation or even elimination at the behest of incumbents because such expenditures threaten corruption.   At the same time the same "liberal" justices see no issue of corruption in the government requiring the citizenry to turn their money over to those who then support the continuation and expansion of the power of the incumbents.

Am I being harsh in describing the mindset of our "liberal" justices?  You decide.  The Udall/Reid/Schumer amendment is specifically a response to the Supreme Court's 5-4 opinion, four "liberals" dissenting, in the Citizens United case in 2010.  The bare majority in that case upheld the right to unlimited independent expenditures by corporations and unions in the context of political elections.  Then we have today's 5-4 decision, four "liberals" again dissenting, in Harris v. Quinn, holding that Illinois could not force home health care workers to pay dues to the SEIU that would then be used to support the political campaigns of Democrats.  Ask yourself:  Which of these two cases involves a more direct and clear threat of rank corruption?

The endless and turgid 90 page dissent in Citizens United was written by now-retired Justice Stevens.  You get to the meat of it somewhere around page 68, where he raises what he believes to be a serious concern that independent expenditures by corporate entities are likely to be corrupting to candidates:

The insight that even technically independent expenditures can be corrupting in much the same way as direct contributions is bolstered by our decision last year in Caperton. . . . In Caperton, then, we accepted the premise that, at least in some circumstances, independent expenditures on candidate elections will raise an intolerable specter of quid pro quo corruption.

Far be it from me to say there is no potential for corruption in literally any aspect of the political process.  But I also think that fair-minded people would recognize that the big money independent spenders, whether the likes of the Kochs on the right or Soros and Steyer on the left, are in this for core reasons of ideology, and not to buy favors for their personal businesses.  Compare that to the SEIU, which is very much in the political game to get the government to compel people to become members against their will and pay dues they don't want to pay.  In the Harris case the government of Illinois directed that some of its money paid to health care workers be paid on to the SEIU, which then kept most of the money for itself and funneled a percentage of the money back into the campaigns of the Democrats who controlled the legislature.  Now read the dissent, this time written by new Justice Kagan, and see if you can find even a mention of the potential for corruption in that. 

These opinions are so long and complicated that no normally sane member of the body politic can actually understand them, even if you have the time to try.  But may I suggest that there is no making sense of them if you take at face value the assertion that the real concern is corruption of the candidates.  If that were the real concern, it would be front and center in the Harris case, and instead it is nowhere to be found.  But there is a unifying principle of the "liberal" approach, unstated but obvious, and that is this:  If we like the speech, then it should not be limited, even if the government is compelling someone to make it against his will; and if we don't like it, then the government must have the power to limit it, which of course it will then exercise.  And which speech do we like and dislike?  Simple:  We like speech that advocates maintenance of the status quo and the ongoing growth and expansion of government; and we don't like speech that opposes any aspect of the government or its ongoing expansion.

While Justice Stevens and other so-called liberals regularly railed against the potential corruption engendered by independent political expenditures, they seem to have no concern whatsoever about the government's ongoing enterprise to promote its own expansion with the use of taxpayer funds.  Would they really allow it to become illegal for anyone to push back?