By Patrick W.H. Wesp
The Supreme Court is clearly wrong when it asserts “money is speech.” That cannot be true in a democracy where “all men are created equal.”
Each of the four Walmart heirs, members of the Walton family, as individuals have fortunes in excess of $33 billion. That’s $33 billion worth of potential speech each. If money equals speech, only about four other Americans have the same amount of speech as the Walton family. Each Walton can vote only once in an election despite the fact that they jointly have $133 billion. However, if they wished, these four voters would have the ability to dominate a political discussion.
The richest 5 percent of Americans own about two-thirds of all the wealth in the United States. This means they control 63 percent of all possible speech available in a monetary form.
Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Each citizen must have the right to put forth her or his views without fear. These ideas will be a mixture of good and bad and everything in between. All can then be discussed, debated and evaluated in the marketplace of ideas, the hope being that the best or better ideas will then be adopted by the majority.
While logically, money cannot be speech in and of itself, money certainly can purchase ways to get your message out. You can express your thoughts to millions of people by buying advertising on TV, the Internet, radio, newspapers, direct mailing, magazines, call centers, billboards and public relations campaigns.
The Supreme Court failed to distinguish the facilitation of speech by money from money being the equivalent of speech. Money only amplifies one’s ability to communicate. It would seem much truer to analogize money to a megaphone for speech rather than pure speech itself.
We allow the use of megaphones, but we regulate use to avoid an undue burden on others. You can use a megaphone to address people on the street or in a crowd, or to lead a march or to address a meeting. But if a person uses a megaphone to shout over the speech of an individual with an opposing point of view, that is not exercising one’s right to free speech, that’s interfering with another person’s right to free speech and other people’s rights to hear and consider a different point of view.
Just as amplification of speech with a megaphone can drown out other people’s right to be heard, amplification of speech by contributions of money can be used to drown out the voices of people who have less money. It is a proper function of government to regulate activities that limit or impede the people’s right to seek representation and redress from the government.
Reasonable oversight of political contributions does not abridge speech; it facilitates a fair discussion.
Patrick W.H. Wesp in a lawyer practicing in Buffalo.