Don’t Speak: The Supreme Court’s New Theory of Free Speech in Elections

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend as much as they want to influence elections. Yesterday, the Court ruled that wealthy candidates and campaign donors have the First Amendment right not to have their spending matched by their opponents.

Welcome to the new logic of free speech in elections.

In a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that a crucial provision of Arizona’s landmark clean elections law, which provides matching funds to publicly financed candidates who are up against particularly well-financed opponents, to be unconstitutional. Why? Because the provision to put publicly financed candidates on even footing with their privately financed opponents “chills” the speech of wealthy individuals and groups who want to pour money into elections.

Yes, if you’re a wealthy person or interest group looking to buy an impact in an election, you might be put off by knowing that, because of matching funds, you would never be able to overwhelm a publicly funded opponent into comparative silence. But, looking at it from the other side, if you’re a candidate who wants to spend your campaign talking to voters rather than donors, you might hesitate to take public financing if you knew you would never be able to even come close the funds of your opponent – without matching funds, the public financing system is all but useless. By taking away the mechanism by which a greater number of candidates can make their voices heard, the Court has stifled speech, rather than protected it.

Justice Elena Kagan, in a zinger-laden dissent, took on the majority’s “more speech is less speech” argument:

The First Amendment's core purpose is to foster a healthy, vibrant political system full of robust discussion and debate. Nothing in Arizona's anticorruption statute, the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act, violates this constitutional protection. To the contrary, the Act promotes the values underlying both the First Amendment and our entire Constitution by enhancing the "opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people."

People For’s Marge Baker had this to say:

The Roberts Court has once again twisted the Constitution to benefit the wealthy and powerful while leaving ordinary Americans with a diminished voice. Like in Citizens United v. FEC, which prohibited legislatures from limiting corporate spending to influence elections, the Court’s majority has strayed from the text and history of the Constitution in order to prevent citizens from maintaining control over our democracy. The Roberts Court would do well to remember that the Constitution was written to protect democracy for all people, not just the rich and powerful. Today it has ruled not only that the wealthy have a right to spend more but that they have a right that everyone else spend less.


PFAW