Nevada’s newly elected U.S. senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, has already taken up the cudgel against the First Amendment previously wielded by her predecessor, Harry Reid.
She put out a press release recently announcing that she has joined with other congressional Democrats to reintroduce a constitutional amendment that would overturn Supreme Court rulings that have held that it is a violation of the First Amendment to restrict the amount of money corporations, nonprofits, unions and other groups may spend on political campaigns and when they may spend it.
In its current incarnation it is being called the Democracy for All Amendment. In previous years it bore the unwieldy acronym DISCLOSE Act — Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections. Reid frequently took to the floor of the Senate to pound the table for the amendment and disparage the Koch brothers’ political spending as the embodiment of evil.
“The U.S. Constitution puts democratic power in the hands of the American people — not corporations or private companies,” the press release quotes Cortez Masto as saying. “Since the Citizens United decision, big corporations have gained unprecedented influence over elections and our country’s political process. I am proud to be a cosponsor of this legislation; it’s critical that we end unlimited corporate contributions if we are going to have a democratic process and government that will truly work for all Americans.”
In the 2010 Citizens United decision, a 5-4 Supreme Court struck down the part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that prohibited organizations such as Citizens United, a political action committee, from expending funds for electioneering immediately prior to an election. In this case the Federal Election Commission blocked the 2008 broadcast of “Hillary: The Movie,” which was critical of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.
During the arguments in the case, the Justice Department attorney defending the law admitted the law also would censor books critical of candidates, though newspapers and other media, most owned by large corporations, were exempted from the law and may criticize, editorialize and endorse or oppose candidates freely. Some corporations are more equal than others.
Cortez Masto’s statement concluded, “The Democracy for All Amendment returns the right to regulate elections to the people by clarifying that Congress and the states can set reasonable regulations on campaign finance and distinguish between individuals and corporations in the law.”
The problem is that free speech is not free if the incumbent government satrapy can curtail its dissemination.
Justice Anthony Kennedy explained this in his majority opinion in Citizens United v. FEC: “As a ‘restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign,’ that statute ‘necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.’ … Were the Court to uphold these restrictions, the Government could repress speech by silencing certain voices at any of the various points in the speech process. (Government could repress speech by ‘attacking all levels of the production and dissemination of ideas,’ for ‘effective public communication requires the speaker to make use of the services of others’).”
The fact the expenditure is coming from a group instead of an individual does not negate the First Amendment guarantee of the “freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely,” because it “also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government.”
An assembly is not just a crowd of people on the street, it is also an organization.
Reid in one of this many diatribes on the subject said: “But the flood of special interest money into our American democracy is one of the greatest threats our system of government has ever faced. Let’s keep our elections from becoming speculative ventures for the wealthy and put a stop to the hostile takeover of our democratic system by a couple of billionaire oil barons. It is time that we revive our constituents’ faith in the electoral system, and let them know that their voices are being heard.”
This implies the voters are too stupid to hear an open and free-wheeling debate and not be influenced by the volume or frequency of the message.
Lest we forget, in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was outspent by Hillary Clinton by two-to-one — $600 million to $1.2 billion.
Censorship is unAmerican and unnecessary. Cortez Masto should abandon this assault on free speech.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.