Wendy Kaminer on the Foolishness of Campaign Finance Reformers


Over at The Atlantic, Wendy Kaminer ably dissects the arguments of campaign finance reformers who want to amend the Constitution in response to Citizens United v. FEC. She focuses on the amendment introduced by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), which would let Congress "regulate the expenditure of funds for political speech by any corporation, limited liability company, or other corporate entity." Kaminer argues that the clause saying "nothing contained in this Article shall be construed to abridge the freedom of the press" is either an empty reassurance (in light of the principle that "money is not speech") or a safeguard that defeats the aims of the amendment's supporters:

You always have to ask what they mean by "press." Corporate speech can't be regulated effectively without regulating the media, especially in an age of corporate conglomeration, when behemoths like GE buy and sell major networks; and, from a liberal perspective, the single, most influential mega wealthy corporation disseminating misinformation and corrupting the political process is Fox News. If reformers somehow succeeded in imposing a ban on independent corporate expenditures that exempted media corporations, their success would be self-defeating: it would effectively enhance monopolies already enjoyed by Fox and other corporate mainstream media. Given these practical realities complicating the drive to restrict corporate political spendingthe ascendence of highly partisan corporate news operations, the changing nature of media, and the media functions performed or acquired by large corporations or advocacy groups that rely partly on corporate funding (like Citizen's United, recently granted a media exemption)—it's hard to take reformers seriously when they profess their commitment to a free press.

Kaminer also rebuts the idea that the movement to protect voters from pernicious speech is a populist crusade:

This supposedly populist movement has a paternalistic heart: The actual effect of political advertising (a primary target of reformers) is difficult to measure. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't; just ask Meg Whitman. But reformers—who don't seem to believe they base their own votes on political ads—assume that many voters are stupid or ignorant and easily manipulated by advertising. Whether or not this assumption is true, it belies the image of campaign finance reform as a populist crusade; it's a crusade that mistrusts the populace.

Kaminer's post is worth reading in its entirety as a reminder that some liberals are still liberal when it comes to freedom of speech. For more on Donna Edwards and the panic over "corporate" speech, see my December Reason cover story, "You Are Now Free to Speak About Politics."