Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Can money be a form of speech?

In the wake of Citizens United (which deserves a blog of its own), there has been tremendous public outcry over the ideas that "corporations are people" and "money is speech." Today on Reddit the top story was a Q&A with Bob Edgar, founder and President of Common Cause, whose aim is to pass a constitutional amendment clarifying that money is not speech and corporations are not people. I'd love to engage the corporations argument at a later time, but this is what I commented in response:

"If I go to the local courthouse and start chanting "Tax the rich!", we'd all agree that's free speech. And if I decide to yell into a megaphone so more people can hear me, that's just a classic protest tactic, right? Still free speech? Ok, well what if my voice gets hoarse from yelling, so after awhile I go to the courthouse with a cardboard sign I fashioned from cheap art materials that says "tax the rich"? Of course, we all know that's free speech too, even if I'm not actually speaking with my mouth. What if I decide to get a little more creative and construct a bigger sign out of plastic and neon flashing lights and carry that out to the courthouse to protest? Maybe not everyone knows how to make such a sign or has access to the materials to do so, but that's still free speech, right? It's just a bigger sign. Then what if my arms get tired, and instead of carrying that sign, I decide to stick it in the ground in my yard. I now have a billboard. You see where I'm going. Maybe instead of neon flashing lights on a billboard I invest that same time, energy and money into filming an advertisement that runs on loop in the 40 inch LED screen I mount in my yard. And then maybe I get that ad to run on a TV station and all of a sudden my message is no longer speech? Each step in that progression - from the megaphone to the art materials to the neon flashing lights to buying the airtime - required a little more money than the last, and priced a few more people out of communicating that message in the way I did. But ALL of them are free speech. If you disagree, it becomes your burden to draw the line somewhere in that progression. I highly doubt you'll be able to do so in an ideologically consistent manner."

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