Sunday, January 24, 2010

Supreme Court rules liberty unconstitutional

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By Brian Ashmankas

In my very first article, I expressed how Massachusetts ethics laws do not go far enough in guaranteeing that our supposed public servants are accountable to us, rather than powerful interests like PACs, parties, and corporations.

Now the Supreme Court has struck down a key provision of the federal government's not-quite-adequate campaign finance law, commonly referred to as McCain-Feingold after its two authors on opposite sides of the aisle.

As a result, corporations are now allowed to directly pay for political advertisements for and against candidates.

This decision was made because, the court argues, corporations are entitled to free speech. Although it could easily be argued that corporations are not citizens and are thus not entitled to free speech under the first amendment, I will not be making this argument. This is because although corporate personhood is morally questionable, it is legally supported by previous precedents.

Rather, the most objectionable part of this ruling is that it classifies the exercise of power (by its nature the restriction of liberty) as liberty.

Free speech is the right of any citizen to express themselves in any manner they choose. This is an immensely important right that allows any and all citizens to resist the powerful, whose perhaps greatest tool is their ability to control and limit the available range of discourse in their favor (think Kim Jong Il and North Korea for an extreme example).

Advertising, and particularly political advertising, is not free speech because it is not free. It is not free because it must be paid for (obviously). Rather than being an open forum as the right to free speech guarantees, the purpose of advertising is to restrict that forum. Those with greater wealth utilize advertising to drown out competing ideas backed by less resources.

Therefore, the removal of the restriction of corporations to engage in political advertising is not a triumph of free speech, but rather a triumph for the precise threat that our founders created the first amendment to protect us against--censorship by those in power of ideas that might threaten that power.

If we really want to protect free speech and its companions liberty and democracy, we should maintain the restriction on corporations to fund political advertising. In fact we should eliminate all paid political advertising because the aim of all of it is to drown out competing voices.

Instead, we should create the open forum that is the true end of free speech either on the Internet, TV, or both. Any American citizen should be able to upload or broadcast any political message that they want on this open forum for free and all American citizens should be able to access any video or audio recording on the forum on demand.

As long as tolls must be paid in order to gain access to the public forum, the forum will not be public, the speech will not be free, and power will rest with those who can pay the toll and with those who control the gates.

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