Liberals are nearly united against Citizens United. This means they are nearly united in favor of censorship. But that has not stopped the Supreme Court decision from being roundly denounced by everyone with progressive DNA – from the elderly solons at The New York Times to the youthful idealists of Occupy Wall Street.
Cities from Missoula to Miami have condemned the ruling. Now the prestige press has gotten in on the act, again.
Media outlets across the country have begun airing stories about how 2012’s campaign ads are the unholy spawn of 2010’s ruling. Already The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and the LA Times have run such stories. NPR has run a half-dozen. (“Illegal During Watergate, Unlimited Campaign Donations Now Fair Game,” ran the headline on one fair-and-balanced look at the issue.)
Media corporations such as those, which spend huge sums of money talking about politicians, just can’t stand it when non-media corporations get to do the same thing.
And lest anyone forget that is precisely what the case was about. In 2008 a nonprofit, incorporated group called Citizens United wanted to distribute a documentary about Hillary Clinton. But doing so during an election campaign would have violated a 2002 campaign-finance law prohibiting “electioneering communications” within 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election.
A law that forbids American citizens to urge the election or defeat of a political candidate raises some obvious First Amendment concerns. During oral arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that book publishers are corporations. He asked the government’s lawyer if the law could prohibit publishing a book that said, “Vote for X.”
Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart said yes—the government: “could prohibit the publication of the book.” Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and former head of Common Cause, later agreed that “a campaign document in the form of a book can be banned.”
To its credit, the ACLU did not side with liberal censors. The provision in dispute is “facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment,” the ACLU said, “because it permits the suppression of core political speech.” And that is just how the high court ruled.
You won’t learn much of that from the scare stories about the new “super PACs.” Instead, you’ll get endless variations on a single theme: Citizens United has made possible a torrent of “negative ads” from “outside groups.”
The theme’s unstated premise is that ostensibly unfortunate results should trump the First Amendment. This is not a wise line of argument for anyone who values a free press to make, but never mind. Are the results really unfortunate? For instance, what is wrong with negative ads? Often they do just what journalists claim is their most noble task: speaking truth to power. As a general rule, “attack” ads from opponents contain more useful information than positive ads from candidates. Positive ads show Candidate X striding manfully across sun-drenched fields while he recites a script about how much he loves America and wants to make it great again. Negative ads tell you how the guy voted.
But the ads are made by (eek!) “outside groups.” Outside of what, exactly? The campaigns themselves—along with the political parties’ paid apparatchiks—which do not like to have their monologues about their candidates’ wonderfulness interrupted. But The New York Times is an outside group. So is the AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood, the Brady Campaign, and MoveOn.org—along with the Chamber of Commerce, the NRA, and the National Right to Life Committee. To term such organizations “outside” is to imply that elections are for the party pros, and everyone else should sit on the sidelines.
If this is the great unspoken wish of campaign “reformers,” then their great unspoken fear is that campaign ads might actually persuade. After all, if campaign ads never worked, then who spent what on them would not matter. This raises two possibilities. The first is that the people are so incredibly stupid a few 30-second spots can lead them by the nose. If that is the case, then the real objection is not advertising—but democracy itself.
The second possibility is that people are not stupid. They listen to competing cases from all sides and then choose according to their own interests and values. If that is the case, then the problem is, again, democracy itself. Why? Because every demand that A be prevented from speaking is, equally, a demand that all others be prevented from hearing. Hence the ultimate aim of rationing political speech is to make sure people who can think for themselves don’t have too much to think about.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.