The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has given out its 2010 Muzzle awards for those blocking freedom of speech, and the awards are all for particular petty instances of censorship. Stanley Fish muses in the New York Times about the conflict between valuing free speech and valuing democracy. What these two thoughtful, well-intended endeavors -- the awards and the op-ed -- seem to miss is that the greatest threat to free speech is the monopolization of speech by some vociferous defenders of free speech. The Supreme Court that ruled on "Citizens United vs. FEC" should not have gone without a Muzzle.
There are very few media outlets through which to reach the masses of American minds marinating in infotainment, and money buys both the advertisements and the filler in between them. And that money is very unevenly distributed among real people and between real people and so-called corporate persons, the latter possessing the greater rights to spend their greater share of the money on politicking. What they do is free speech, and it certainly drowns out democracy, but it also drowns out the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press of everybody else. Restraining these monopolists, taking political discussion out of the financial marketplace, opening up the media to more voices: these are reforms that increase freedom of speech; they don't diminish it.
Citizens are united against the "Citizens United" decision, as the polling shows, and advocates from different sides of the political spectrum are calling for the amending of our Constitution via a convention called by two-thirds of the states. Clearly one way to solve the problem of judges claiming that spending money is speech (even if it effectively blocks a greater number of people's speech) or that corporations are people -- or various other crazy claims such as former attorney general Alberto Gonzales's assertion that the Constitution's ban on suspending habeas corpus does not imply that anyone has habeas corpus to begin with -- is to go in and amend the Constitution to explicitly block loopholes, spell out every simple assumption, and otherwise update language with an eye to preempting the legalistic crimes of every future John Yoo or Jay Bybee. The Constitution is, of course, badly out of date as well as intentionally misinterpreted in areas where it is not so out of date. Amending it is long overdue. And we need to get to work.
But another possible solution has just arisen. It's not as healthy a solution. It doesn't open up an avenue for as broad a range of reforms. It does not restore any powers to the rightful sovereigns of the nation. And we have even less ability to influence it. But it is a real possibility, and the opportunity for it will come and go relatively quickly. I'm referring, of course, to the possibility of placing a new justice on the Supreme Court who commits to reading the Constitution as if it were written in English. This will, of course, require denying Republican senators the use of the filibuster for the confirmation, and appointing the right sort of nominee. Those two necessary steps can only be taken by the Democratic senators and the President. They have already placed an apparently decent justice on the Supreme Court, so another one is possible. But the Republicans will fight it, and the Democrats may not have the nerve. We may see a weak nominee who approximates the so-called "public option" in the healthcare campaign withdrawn and replaced by an all-out corporatist. We should be prepared for this and work against it, but realize that amending the Constitution will remain a solution even in the worst case scenario.
"Amend the Constitution": That is the cover title for The Progressive Magazine's April 2010 issue. In the lead article, Matthew Rothschild, the magazine's editor, writes: "Make no mistake about it: The [Supreme] court's ruling in 'Citizens United', if left to stand, will destroy whatever hope we may ever have had of democracy in this country. It will entrench corporate power as never before. And the promise of America will be dashed."
And John Nichols of The Nation Magazine posted a blog piece
entitled: "Tell Congress to Get Serious About Corporate Campaign
The piece discusses the constitutional amendment that Congresswoman Donna Edwards and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr., have introduced to overturn the Supreme Court's ruling in "Citizens United," an amendment which now has 23 additional co-sponsors in the US House of Representatives.
In the meantime, Congress is helping to demonstrate that far too little can be done without amending the Constitution, by proposing lesser legislative reforms, reforms that could do some good in the short term if passed, but reforms that show how very far the Democratic Party in Washington is from the full restoration of voting and speech rights that's needed.
"Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) are expected to unveil their legislation by the end of this week, although an announcement could slip into the beginning of next week, a Democratic aide said."
And here's the great news, which also forebodes a nominee filibustering with the Democrats' blessing:
"The Democrats are working to line up Republican support in both chambers to make the bill a bipartisan offering. Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.), Todd Platts (R-Pa.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.), all previous backers of campaign finance reform measures, are seen as the most likely GOP supporters of the bill, sources involved in the discussions said."
And here's what may be in the bill:
"Major provisions include strict disclosure and disclaimer requirements for corporate-funded campaign ads, including a mandate that CEOs and top donors appear on camera to 'approve' messages, much as candidates are required to do now. The bill would also explicitly ban contributions from companies with a 20 percent or greater foreign ownership stake, as well as from government contractors or firms that have received and not repaid Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds. . . . Many reform advocates are hoping to add a provision that would require corporations to hold a shareholder vote for significant political expenditures."
In other words, Congress is going to layer some good but nonetheless frightening formalities and due process on the outrageous policy of permitting unlimited corporate financial influence . . . er, excuse me . . . speech. What's frightening is that this could move us toward greater acceptance of this outrage. What's good, is that at least some people would become more aware of exactly who was telling them what to think. Here's Business Week (Bloomberg):
"U.S. companies would lose their ability to secretly finance political advertising run by organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce under a bill being considered by Democratic lawmakers. . . . The bill, which may be introduced as early as next week, would require nonprofit groups, unions and trade associations including the Chamber to identify who pays for ads designed to sway opinion on candidates for federal office. 'The Chamber is going to end up with at least one very undesirable element: The public is going to know exactly which corporations are the major funders,' said Craig Holman, who handles campaign finance issues for Public Citizen. . . . The nation's biggest business lobbying group, the Chamber spent $47 million on so-called issue advertising last year, mostly on health-care policy, according to Kandar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group in Arlington, Virginia. The Chamber has said it plans to spend $50 million on candidate- focused ads alone this year."