We take freedom of speech for granted in this country. My ’87 Ford Ranger with its “Don’t Blame Me, I Wrote-In Ron Paul” bumper sticker can park next to a Prius with a “Change We Can Believe In” Barack Obama bumper sticker on it with no repercussions. It is a God-given right, most Americans think. (They’d be wrong of course, unless God was masquerading as James Madison in 1791.)
The First Amendment to the Constitution gives us this right (handed down from the English Bill of Rights before it), saying, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” That’s it. It doesn’t specify what kind of speech, just speech in general.
Of course, even in America, we haven’t always been able to say whatever we want.
The Supreme Court has ruled several different kinds of speech as unprotected: Speech that incites people to unlawful conduct, libel and slander, obscene speech, threatening speech, speech infringing on intellectual property, and commercial advertising.
These are reasonable exceptions to our right of free speech that most Americans agree on. Even on speech that reasonable people would deem offensive (racist speech, sexist speech, etc.), most Americans agree with the quote usually attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
However, there have been times when government has entered, to say the least, constitutionally murky waters.
John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and our second president, signed the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to publish “any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings…with intent to defame” any member of the government (excepting vice president of the United States Thomas Jefferson, a member of the opposition party).
After the Civil War, the newly reconstructed South passed so-called “black codes” which, among other more gruesome practices, limited newly emancipated slaves right to political speech.
And in 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (aka, McCain-Feingold) was signed into law, which prevented corporations from supporting a federal candidate via an advertisement within 30 days of a primary or caucus and 60 days of a general election.
It is this last usurpation of State power that we turn our concentration to now.
In January, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, decided that this was unconstitutional, arguing, “Because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy—it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people—political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it by design or inadvertence.” And that is precisely what McCain-Feingold did.
This decision caused much controversy. It was “a blow to democracy,” the New York Times said. It showed insufficient “respect for precedent,” cried the Washington Post.
I think if the law limited the right of these two publications to support candidates for office they would be singing a different tune.
Folks, this law won’t do much. Contrary to what you may have heard, elections won’t become corrupt machinations decided only by our puppet masters, the richest corporations; the amount of money a company can contribute to a political campaign was left unchanged by this ruling. Only now, corporations can perform the “essential mechanism of democracy”—free speech.
The only thing we need to worry about now is the appearance of corporation’s buildings. My Ron Paul bumper sticker sure as hell would not look good plastered on the walls of Pelco.