CHAMPION STRATEGIES – PUBLIC SPEAKING WORKSHOP – NOVEMBER 10, 2021 – 1
Fixing Free Speech
Three issues involving the freedom of speech are most pressing for the future.
Money, Politics, and the First Amendment
The first pressing issue concerns the regulation of money in the political process. Put simply, the question is this: To what extent, and in what circumstances, can the government constitutionally restrict political expenditures and contributions in order to “improve” the democratic process?
In its initial encounters with this question, the Supreme Court held that political expenditures and contributions are “speech” within the meaning of the First Amendment because they are intended to facilitate political expression by political candidates and others. The Court also recognized, however, that political expenditures and contributions could be regulated consistent with the First Amendment if the government could demonstrate a sufficiently important justification. In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), for example, the Court held that the government could constitutionally limit the amount that individuals could contribute to political candidates in order to reduce the risk of undue influence, and in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003), the Court held that the government could constitutionally limit the amount that corporations could spend in the political process in order to influence electoral outcomes.
In more recent cases, though, in a series of five-to-four decisions, the Supreme Court has overruled McConnell and held unconstitutional most governmental efforts to regulate political expenditures and contributions. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010); McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (2014). As a result of these more recent decisions, almost all government efforts to limit the impact of money in the political process have been held unconstitutional, with the consequence that corporations and wealthy individuals now have an enormous impact on American politics.
Those who object to these decisions maintain that regulations of political expenditures and contributions are content-neutral restrictions of speech that should be upheld as long as the government has a sufficiently important justification. They argue that the need to prevent what they see as the corruption and distortion of American politics caused by the excessive influence of a handful of very wealthy individuals and corporations is a sufficiently important government interest to justify limits on the amount that those individuals and corporations should be permitted to spend in the electoral process.
Because these recent cases have all been five-to-four decisions, it remains to be seen whether a differently constituted set of justices in the future will adhere to the current approach, or whether they will ultimately overrule or at least narrowly construe those decisions. In many ways, this is the most fundamental First Amendment question that will confront the Supreme Court and the nation in the years to come.