There’s nothing inherently unconstitutional in limiting the amount of speech, Cressman insists. We do it all the time—for example, cities control when and where demonstrations can take place or how long people can speak at council meetings. Moreover, he argues that while you choose to patronize Fox News, MSNBC, the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, political advertising is forced upon you. It’s not really free speech at all—it’s paid speech. It’s not at all what the Founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.
Cressman examines how courts have foiled attempts to limit campaign spending, details what a constitutional amendment limiting paid speech should say, and reveals an overlooked political tool concerned citizens can use to help gain the amendment’s passage. Seven times before in our history we have approved constitutional amendments to overturn wrongheaded rulings by the Supreme Court—there’s no reason we can’t do it again.
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About the Author
Thom Hartmann is a nationally and internationally syndicated talkshow host whose radio and TV shows are available in over a billion homes nationwide. He is the author of 24 books, most recently the bestselling The Crash of 2016.
Read an Excerpt
When Money Talks
The High Price of "Free" Speech and the Selling of Democracy
By Derek D. Cressman
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Derek D. Cressman
All rights reserved.
Enough Is Enough
How and Why We Have Limited the Duration, Volume, and Location of Speech
I rise on behalf of the vast majority of the American people who believe money is not speech, corporations are not people, and government should not be for sale to the highest bidder. We demand that you overturn Citizens United.
— Kai Newkirk, addressing the Supreme Court, which promptly shut him up
The Supreme Court had never seen anything like it. On February 26, 2014, a young man in the audience stood up and had the temerity to speak his mind to all nine justices. The Court bailiffs promptly arrested Kai Newkirk — they silenced his speech so that other people could be heard. And they were right to do so.
The Supreme Court strictly regulates who is allowed to speak before the Court and how they must do it. It's not enough to be a lawyer. An attorney must be recognized as a special member of the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. Attorneys must be nominated by another member of the bar and confirmed by the Court itself before they can utter a single word. Regular citizens are forbidden to speak.
Kai Newkirk was breaking all the Court's rules. He wasn't a lawyer and he wasn't representing anyone in the lawsuit before the Court. He was a visitor in the audience, which had been explicitly told it could not speak during the proceedings. Further, somebody videotaped Kai's speech and put it on the Internet — the first such incident in the history of a secretive chamber that prohibits any video recording of its proceedings.
Although court bailiffs were right to enforce the rules limiting speech in the Supreme Court chambers, Kai was surely right to speak out against the tyranny of a court that refuses to limit the paid speech of billionaires while telling Kai and the rest of us to shut up. In the Citizens United case, and many others, the Supreme Court has mistakenly held that limiting the money people and organizations can spend to purchase speech violates the First Amendment. In fact, our everyday experiences demonstrate that limiting each person's speech is necessary to ensure a full and free public debate. Let's consider some examples of how and why this is done.
Why We Limit the Duration of Speech
Courts impose strict page limits on the briefs that lawyers submit prior to hearings. Just ask the multinational oil company BP (formerly British Petroleum). During litigation surrounding its unprecedented oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the company submitted a brief that appeared to be within the thirty-five-page limit set by the court. However, district court judge Carl Barbier noticed that the company had slightly adjusted the spacing between lines to squeeze in the equivalent of six more pages than what was allowed. Judge Barbier warned that if BP continued such tactics, he would strike all future briefs from the company, saying "The Court should not have to waste its time policing such simple rules. ... Counsel are expected to follow the Court's orders both in letter and in spirit." 20 If courts can limit corporate speech defending itself in litigation, why can't we limit corporate spending on elections that only indirectly affect corporate interests?
It is not just the city council in Richmond, California, or federal courts that limit how long a person can speak. We limit speech all the time. Turn on C-SPAN and you'll notice members of Congress pay close attention to just how much time they have to speak on the floor. They'll often ask the chairperson to allocate more time, or "yield back" the balance of their time to other members to speak. But if they exceed their time limit, the chairperson's gavel comes down, limiting their speech so that others may be heard. Similarly, during a debate for any office, from president down to state legislator, there are strict rules limiting the amount of time each candidate has for opening remarks and to answer each question.
Nobody seriously believes that these limits on the duration of certain political speech violate the First Amendment, which says that Congress shall not abridge the people's right to freedom of speech. In fact, these limits protect the First Amendment by ensuring that the people, and our representatives in Congress, can hear from opposing points of view and make informed decisions about self-government.
Why We Limit the Timing of Speech
My first summer job during college was going door-to-door on behalf of a grassroots campaign for an environmental organization. Police sometimes picked up canvassers on our team, telling them that door-to-door solicitation wasn't allowed in a particular community. It turns out they were wrong. Although courts have upheld bans on door-to-door solicitation for commercial purposes (such as the famed Fuller Brush man of long ago who knocked on doors selling cleaning supplies), the Supreme Court has specifically rejected bans on door-to-door solicitation for political speech. Similarly, courts have upheld so-called "do not call" lists for commercial telemarketing even while allowing political campaigns to call voters uninvited. However, courts have upheld limits on the hours that you are allowed to knock on a person's door or call him on the phone — in many cities this is banned after nine o'clock at night. That limit on speech is justified because it balances the listener's right to privacy in his own home with your right to speak.
We also limit the timing of speech in public spaces. Just ask the activists of Occupy Wall Street. After holding signs and chanting "we ... are ... the 99 percent" for hours, the protesters decided to sleep in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street rather than heading home to the comfort of their beds. Other protesters joined them in solidarity in similar demonstrations across the country.
Months into the protests, police fell back on curfews as justification to storm the public parks and eject protesters using tear gas and sometimes violence. Thousands were jailed. In this way, police limited the duration of the protesters' speech by acting against alleged violations of the timing of that speech (in the form of curfews). This approach perhaps would have been reasonable if there were other people who wanted to use those same public spaces to speak about other issues, or even to simply enjoy some silence. But in this case, it's not clear that the protesters were preventing anyone else from speaking or disturbing the peace enough to lose their right to free speech, and the crackdowns were widely condemned.
How I Was Arrested for Speaking Too Much
In the summer of 2014, I joined Kai Newkirk and hundreds of others during the final day of a march on the California state capitol. Kai and others in the group 99Rise walked all the way from Los Angeles to Sacramento over thirty-seven days, enduring temperatures as high as 110 degrees in California's Central Valley.
March organizers had acquired a permit to protest on the steps of the capitol. But we wanted to continue our protest for longer than the permit allowed — long enough so that legislators would hear us when they came to their offices the following morning.
At 10:30 that evening, police informed us that our permit to protest had "expired" — as if there is an expiration date in the First Amendment. When we didn't leave, we were arrested, handcuffed, and taken to the county jail. The government had decided to limit the duration of our speech. It shut us up.
Had there been four other groups of people wanting to speak on the steps of the California state capitol at 10:30 that evening, then limiting our speech would have promoted First Amendment values. There are four sets of steps to the capitol — one on the east, west, north, and south. Occasionally, there are times when different groups are actually using each set of steps for a protest, press conference, concert, wedding, or other event. During those times, government permits enhance the ability of people to speak by ensuring that every group has a chance to use the limited forum of the capitol steps. The permits also prevent hecklers and other saboteurs from hijacking another group's event.
But if government limits on one person's speech are not enacted specifically to allow another person to speak, the limits don't further the First Amendment. Perhaps that is why the prosecutor declined to bring charges against me and the twelve other protesters who were detained that night.
This concept — that limitations on speech promote the aims of the First Amendment if they enhance the ability of other people to speak — is the core lesson we must apply to money in politics. The refusal to apply this simple principle is the Supreme Court's key failing.
Why We Limit the Volume of Speech
Besides limiting the duration and timing of speech, government also limits how loud we can be. In many states, it is illegal to drive a motorcycle that exceeds ninety-two decibels, even if the motorcycle is part of a political parade. Some cities have ordinances that regulate amplified sound, even if it is coming from a political sound truck. Your neighbors simply don't want to hear your views about abortion, war, or the minimum wage blasted at the volume of a rock-and-roll concert.
Police can arrest people for speaking too noisily. A dozen people from the Christ Fellowship Church were arrested for protesting too loudly outside a fund-raiser for a pro-gay marriage organization in North Carolina. Police claimed that the protesters were violating the city of Greensboro's noise ordinance. If there were no limits on noise, anyone could silence speech they opposed by simply outshouting the speaker.
In addition to noise ordinances, most jurisdictions authorize police to arrest citizens for "disturbing the peace." Although this can be done for legitimate purposes, it can also quite literally mean that the government can shut you up when it thinks you should be quiet and peaceful. During protests across the United States in the wake of several police killings of unarmed African Americans in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, thousands of people were arrested for "disturbing the peace" because they were disrupting the normal flow of life in an attempt to make their views known.
Police can and do silence protesters when they block traffic on highways or sidewalks, disturb shoppers, or otherwise make too much of a nuisance of themselves. Why? Because when one constitutional right conflicts with another right or interferes with our ability to govern ourselves, there's a legitimate reason to enforce limits. The principle at stake in the examples above is that one person's right to use her property (be it a motorcycle, a loudspeaker, or a protest sign) cannot violate another person's right to enjoy quiet on his own property or to drive down a highway unimpeded by protesters. When your freedoms trample on my liberties, we need to balance rights — including those espoused in the First Amendment.
Why We Limit the Location of Speech
Once when I was working on a campaign to increase recycling rates, some of the volunteers thought we should hold a large banner on a freeway overpass. Thousands of cars that drove below us would then see our message.
The highway patrol told us this was unsafe because motorists might be distracted by our political speech and could get into an accident. The government was limiting the location of our speech in order to protect the safety of motorists. That's a reasonable balance between First Amendment rights to free speech and the constitutional duty of government to promote the general welfare. It would be even more reasonable — and credible — if the government applied the same logic to billboards. Had the volunteers on my campaign been able to raise tens of thousands of dollars, we could have put the exact same banner on a billboard that the same motorists would have seen in a way that the highway patrol didn't view as distracting.
When more than ten thousand Tea Party activists descended on Washington, DC, in 2009 to protest the Affordable Care Act, ten of them were arrested for protesting inside the Capitol building. The police considered the protests "disorderly conduct" and quite literally silenced those protesters even while allowing many more to say the exact same thing outside the building. Again it was the location, not the content, of the speech that the government was limiting.
Courts have similarly upheld limits on the location of speech outside polling places or abortion clinics. There is a legitimate question as to whether fifty feet, or five hundred feet, or five thousand feet is an appropriate balance between the free speech ideals of the First Amendment and the privacy rights of someone casting a vote or making an important decision without being harassed by someone screaming just inches away from her face. The challenge here is not whether there should be any limit on the speech, but what the limit should be.
Should We Ever Limit the Content of Speech?
Government rules on where we speak, when we speak, and how loudly we speak are less troubling than limits on what we say. Any regulation on the content of speech runs a great risk of limiting freedom of conscience and violating the First Amendment. But even when it comes to content regulation, many Americans agree some limits are justified.
Our government prohibits people from speaking about classified information that protects national security, for example. It is illegal to tell a foreign government, a terrorist organization, or even the general public information that could jeopardize the lives of Americans. Bradley Manning was sent to prison for revealing secret video footage that showed, among other things, US troop movements in Iraq.
Nonetheless, it is dangerous to allow the executive branch alone to decide what is secret and what is not. There is a difference between treason and legitimate whistleblowing or political dissent that presidents and their inner circle of advisors may not see in the fog of war. It is far too tempting for the government to label serious political opposition as jeopardizing national security. For instance, the administration of President Barack Obama attempted to ban the release of videos showing force-feeding of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, arguing it would harm national security because enemies of the United States might use the footage for propaganda. A judge disagreed with the notion that propaganda was a legitimate security threat and rejected the government's limit on the content of this speech.
One of the reasons we need a judicial branch is to check the power of the executive branch. When President Richard Nixon tried to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, a judge ultimately refused to convict Mr. Ellsberg. Ellsberg had violated government limits on his speech by giving classified documents to the New York Times for publication. But the judicial branch concluded that those restrictions were not justified by our national security interests. A jury might, or might not, come to a similar conclusion about Edward Snowden if he is ever brought to trial for violating limits on speaking about the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance of American communications.
Some people believe there should be no government secrets. Projects such as WikiLeaks intentionally violate government limits on speech by leaking classified information to the news media and to citizens directly. But even WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange concedes that some information should be kept secret; he just believes that secrecy shouldn't be used to cover up government abuses.
Whether or not you agree with Assange or Snowden, most Americans believe that at least some information should be classified. How to decide what types of speech to limit for national security purposes and what to make public is an important debate that is beyond the scope of this book.
Nonetheless, even those citizens who think there should be absolutely no limits on the content of speech should think seriously about distinguishing that issue from whether we should limit the duration, timing, and location of speech — let alone the amount that billionaires may spend on political advertising. Similarly, we should separate the issue of regulating content of speech from limiting the amount of money that any person or group can spend to promote that speech in a political campaign.
Excerpted from When Money Talks by Derek D. Cressman. Copyright © 2016 Derek D. Cressman. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsContents
Foreword by Thom Hartmann
Introduction: The Crisis of Broken Politics
Why We Must Fight
1. Enough Is Enough: How and Why We Have Limited the Duration, Volume, and Location of Speech
2. If Money Is Speech, Speech Is No Longer Free: The Difference between Paid Speech and Free Speech
3. Stupidity, Inequality, and Corruption: Three Good Reasons to Limit Paid Speech
4. Who Broke Our Democracy? How Courts Have Struck Down Limits on Money in Politics
Ready for Action? Let’s Go
5. Repairing Our Republic: How the People Can Overturn the Court
6. Magic Words: What Should a Constitutional Amendment Say?
7. Instructions for Mission Impossible: How to Pass a Constitutional Amendment When Incumbents Don’t Want One
8. Halfway Home: We’re Further Along Than You Think
Epilogue by Miles Rapoport