But I Thought Money Was Speech!

April 18, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

Former Governor of Illinois George Ryan has been convicted on all counts of basically running a storefront out of his office.  He’s Republican.  Not that I think Democrats don’t do the same thing, and often, but the Republicans make such a big deal out of NOT being Democrats–that they are, somehow, more ethical–that it gives me a thrill when one goes down for something like this.      

Not long ago the Republicans were fighting vehemently against campaign reform because, the argument ran, Money is Speech.  What one does with it should be protected under the First Amendment like any other form of speech, therefore, putting limits on campaign contributions was unConstitutional.  Anyone with a smidgeon of integrity and half a brain realizes this was just a dodge so the K Street Project could continue unencumbered and the Republicans could minister openly to their constituency.

I’m sure on some level Governor Ryan thought what he was doing was, if not perfectly legal, perfectly ethical or at least, in principle, constitutional.  Money is speech.  He was simply listening to his constituency.

Why isn’t money speech?  Very simple test.  Does everyone have equal access to it?  Or is access to money privileged?  And is everyone’s money the same?

There are a host of presumptions in this, of course–education, basic verbal skills, etc.  But we presume many things.  Presuming you benefit from public education, you come out with roughly the same potential ability to express yourself as any body else.  Some will do it better than others, but everybody gets a shot.  Basic literacy means you can write letters to the editor.  You can go to neighborhood meetings and speak.  Likewise there are call-in radio shows.  We share language freely. 

We don’t share money freely.  And those who have it do whatever they can to guarantee they keep it and limit general access to it.  Because the money the average person gets is almost always spoken for (pun intended) by virtue of paying the way through life.  Only those who have far more than they need have the ability to contribute money to charities, churches, research institutions, academic institutions…and politicians.  The rest of us just pay taxes.

Which do not go directly to a particular public official.  Perhaps there should be a federally-subsidized dispersement for people making less than six-figures to receive a lump sum to be sent to the politician of their choice.  That might begin to make money something similar to speech.

It’s access.  When you get down to it, it’s access.  Anyone can write a letter to the governor.  Not everyone can include a large “contribution” with it.  And make no mistake, if money is speech, then the ability to shout matters more than the content of the remarks.

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About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (2)

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  1. Jason Rayl says:

    With the transformation of the American social landscape from a subsistence culture to a "market" culture in the 1810s through 40s, money became the cool new medium and government openly courted people to come buy favors. It was assumed that such people were the wave of the future and it was their interests that needed to be served.

    Besides, there was no one who could tell them No until Teddy Roosevelt–who was one of them!–stood up and said Enough.

    We're still arguing about Who Is A Citizen in this country. The Democrats have come to a place where they seem to think anyone who lives here (legally) is a citizen. The Republicans clearly believe a citizen is someone with Means.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    OK, Jason, you hit a raw nerve (you’re the innocent messenger):

    Our election system is so incredibly not-inspiring that, in the most hotly contest election in many years, the 2004 presidential election, only 60% of the people who were eligible to vote bothered to do so. If that sounds like a lot, compare it with the voter turnout in many other countries (e.g., Australia at 95% turnout or Costa Rica at 81%), and you’ll see that our turnout is actually pathetic. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voter_turnout

    Too much “free speech,” I suppose.

    Or would it be more correct to characterize elections for what they really are: auctions. And lets call “contributions” for what they have become: bribes. And what about the system that encourages corporations to contribute to candidates of both major parties for their own economic well-being? People on the street call this tactic a “protection racket” or a “shake down.”

    I agree that when we refer to the type of “free speech” promoted by PAC’s and corporation, we should call it by its real name: access. It’s not idealistic speech in any sense. It definitely doesn’t remind one of concerned citizens handing out flyers in the public square. It’s the kind of “free speech” that divides us into two tiers: The givers of lots of this green-colored “free speech” get their calls returned by politicians; the rest of us get form letters.

    This is the kind of “free speech” we can afford to do away with. We need public-office holders who are beholden to no one and accountable to everyone.

    Because our representatives must raise large amounts of money, I mean, “free speech” to keep their jobs, they tend to cavort with their contributors instead of paying attention to regular folks. And that’s not the worst of it. Special interest money, I mean “free speech” fuels the dishonest and polarized political dialogues we so often hear. It commingles check-writing and political decision-making.

    As you argue, the gushing of special interest “free speech” drowns out the opinions of ordinary citizens. It excludes them from the national political dialogue. The “free speech” promoted by most of our current politicians mocks everything we ever learned to love about government in grade school civics classes.

    If money is really “free speech,” then Down With Free Speech!

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