The Supreme Court said a couple of weeks ago that the Constitution forbids us from legislating a limit on the amount of money people can spend to manipulate public opinion. The First Amendment to the Constitution, which says Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech, gives us all an unlimited right to influence our fellow citizens by buying their attention with paid advertising. Even to the point of denouncing candidates for office on election day, an activity that federal election laws were intended, unconstitutionally, according to five justices, to regulate.
The decision is frustrating to those of us who believe that the political power of vast wealth is destroying our country and our way of life. Still, the case is a close one, and it’s hard not to be sympathetic to principled arguments against limitations on speech, even paid speech.
The problem may not be that people have an unfettered right to influence public opinion with money, but that anybody has enough money to do it. If the Constitution keeps us from telling the rich how much they may spend to influence us, it doesn’t limit our authority to tax wealth, even when our purpose is to limit the political power of those with too much of it. Maybe we should start there, with confiscatory taxes that don't allow for much in the way of bribery, graft, and public relations.
It’s true that confiscatory taxes will cut down on the volume of political advertising we’re exposed to, but the stuff we get at election-time is seldom informative and always narrow and one-sided. To ensure that candidates for office have access to the public, whether or not they can raise money, we should commandeer the air waves for political discussion. The commercial networks and cable broadcasters, all of whom utilize public property to make their money, would have to give up some substantial blocks of time for public use. The Constitution places no limits on Congress’ power to regulate the use of the air waves and public utilities.
We would have to override the objections of the entertainment industry, which now controls broadcasting and reaps obscene profits from our elections. These predators supply the tools of manipulation to our rich proprietors day in and day out. It’s not the Supreme Court or the Constitution, but the corrupt power of the commercial media to influence public opinion that stands between voters and regulation in the public interest. Ironically, they’ve disinformed us so consistently over the past few years that their messages are no longer credible, and this makes them vulnerable.