As It Turns Out, Money Is Speech

Those who advocate for more restrictions on campaign finance generally practice a populist politics. They fulminate against the influence of money, demonize donors, and ascribe all the nation’s problems to Citizens United. Once you have read an example such reformist rhetoric, you have read all of them. (But if you must read more, here’s E.J. Dionne’s recent, especially over-the-top offering in the genre).

But not all critics of campaign finance are so intellectually empty. Consider the recent op-ed by liberal law professor Geoffrey Stone. He addresses the question: “Is money speech?” For the conventional reformer, of course, money is not speech. Some even wish to amend the Constitution to recognize what they take to be the obvious truth that money is not speech. Stone shows why they are wrong. He remarks, “Not a single justice of the United States Supreme Court who has voted in any of the more than a dozen cases involving the constitutionality of campaign finance regulations, regardless of which way he or she came out in the case, has ever embraced the position that money is not speech.”

Stone says the correct question to ask is “When should the government be allowed to regulate political contributions and expenditures – even if they are speech?”

Regarding expenditures, the Supreme Court has for some time answered this question with “never.” Limits on spending abridge the freedom of speech. That answer makes sense. If any speech implicates “the freedom of speech,” political speech does. If spending funds political speech, the “make no law” admonition in the First Amendment applies to such spending.

The Court has also been especially hostile to government regulations of the content of speech. But campaign finance regulations are always content-based. Most seek to advance a partisan cause expressed in speech. Others seek to suppress speech critical of current officeholders. The rest hope to cut funding to speech that they see as ideologically “incorrect.”

Let’s face it: few would care about campaign finance regulations if such rules did not give hope of suppressing speech they disdain and thereby the triumph of a cause they hold dear. Campaign finance regulations should always be suspect in a nation that values in fact as well as words “the freedom of speech.”