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Is Money Speech?

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Does that freedom extend to the way people spend their money? Is money a form of speech? Professor Bradley Smith shows how money is needed to communicate ideas and to establish organizations. For example, what if citizens are allowed to have newspapers or radio stations but the government says they cannot spend any money, or can spend only a limited amount of money, to run them? Such a restriction would seem to limit citizens’ freedom of the press.

It would be difficult to be elected in a political campaign without spending any money to reach out to voters. If the government controls the money spent in political campaigns, it also controls the speech. So is spending money on a campaign speech? What do you think? Please leave your answers in the comments.

Is spending money protected by the first amendment? Most people think, "Hey, money’s money; it’s not speech. It’s not religion." But imagine if the government said, you can have any religion you want. You can practice any religion you want; you just can’t spend any money to build churches or buy hymnals or engage in church missionary or charitable work. Imagine if the government said, "Oh you’re free to operate a newspaper or a radio station; you just can’t spend any money to do it." Or maybe, "You can’t spend more than, say, $25,000 a year to do it." Imagine if the government said you’re free to speak, but you can’t buy a megaphone so that people can hear your voice a little more clearly. Is spending money on a campaign speech? You know it’s pretty hard to run a political campaign or communicate your views to any number of people without spending money. If the government controls the money, it controls the speech. So should spending money for the purposes of political speech be protected by the first amendment? You tell me.

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24 Comments

  1. Matt Wavle

    Wow, that’s a good question, a very hard question.  I would think that limiting cronyism would make it much less likely that large corporations would try and bankroll, or basically "buy" and election result.  And generally speaking, property rights entail being able to do whatever you want with your own property, including your cash.  So, limiting donations ought to be out, but having a public accounting of them ought to be transparent from the moment they are received.

  2. libertyiowa

    But see the video "Should the government be able to track your political activity". By making disclosure laws, it is less likely for a voter to give to a out of favor candidate. They might be denied a job or socially ostracized by their nosy neighbors. One could argue that disclosures could be made voluntary. Think about it, no Presidential candidate is required to release their tax filings, but almost everyone of them does. Why? Because the press, the interest groups, other candidates and maybe the voters pressure them into doing it. The same could be done with campaign contributions. The government doesn’t require them to be released, but most candidates will or else face criticism from the groups listed. The same could happen to the corporations that make donations to candidates. In theory the press, interest groups and consumers could say tell who you contribute to or we will boycott your product. Which leads us back to the question I asked about at the beginning, if your contribution is going to be released to the public, either as required by law or voluntarily, are you less likely to contribute. Under a voluntary system, an out of favor candidate would feel less need  to release his contribution list, because it wouldn’t help him and his contributions might dry up completely.  

  3. citizen1111

    I would agree.  I worry though that corporations are able to drown out the speech of individual citizens. 

  4. TateFegley

    The only outcome I see from allowing elected politicians to dictate the terms on how money can be spent on political speech is one in which it is much more difficult for outsiders to win elections.

  5. Ryan Boyd

    I think that spending money should be protected, simply because it is a basic economic freedom that is completely related to our political freedoms. The fact is that politics, economics, and society are not three separate silos, and we should have our rights protected in each of these mixed realms.

  6. coleyoung

    People should just spend money how they want. This is called a free, libertarian society for a reason.

  7. cmjohnson732

    It should definently be protected. Corporate donations to candidates might should be limited but how and where money is spent from an average person to an average person, should not.

  8. illnoise2008

    That was the first time I felt I understood this.  According to your argument money is a form of speech.

  9. borisjvandruff

    These arguments are mostly fallacious. Freedom of religion and freedom of the press are also protected by the first amendment…

    As far as individual campaign finance is concerned, fine, but give the people full disclosure after the election where that money went, and return what’s left over in proper apportionment.
  10. Anonymous

    Control of campaign finances is about fair elections. Few are concerned about fair media, and no one cares about fair religious affiliation. If NBC has a news budget 20 times that of CBS, so what?

    It’s one thing to control the content of speech. That would be repression. Controlling the volume of speech (the size of the megaphone) means that a billionaire or transnational corporation (Citizens United) cannot overwhelm the speech of candidates with more appealing or better ideas. The content of speech does not equal the volume of speech, and that equivalence is the key ingredient to plutocracy.

    For more, read Ontology 101: Money is not speech.
    http://www.amendmentgazette.com/2014/05/27/ontology-101-money-speech/

  11. Anonymous

    This isn’t about average persons. This is about a government of, by and for the billionaires, i.e., oligarchy.

  12. Anonymous

    Money spent on campaigns is covered under the “manner of holding elections,” Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution. It should be regulated, must be regulated, if we’re going to have fair elections.

    “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and
    Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof;
    but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except
    as to the Place of Chusing Senators.”

  13. Anonymous

    I support full disclosure if people who contribute to things such as Prop 8 in CA (The 2008? Anti-Gay Marriage Prop) are hounded out of their professions due to public pressure from Lefties outraged that someone on the right spoke their mind.  The giving of right-wing donor names and adresses from the IRS to leftist organizations is also a concern when you talk about full disclosure of political donors.  Donors have to be protected, yet the people spouting tolerance this and tolerance that from the rooftops villify anyone who speaks for the half of this country that isn’t allowed to have an opinion.

  14. Anonymous

    It’s one thing to control the content of speech. That would be repression. Controlling the volume of speech (the size of the megaphone) means that a billionaire or transnational corporation (Citizens United) cannot overwhelm the speech of candidates with more appealing or better ideas.”


    If you mute the volume of my speech, or limit the volume of my speech such that less people will be able to hear it than would ahve otherwise, how have you not abridged my freedom of speech?  Are you saying you’re only abridging my freedom to be heard?  
    In another scenario, imagine a competitive political campaign for a small state-wide or large city-wide office, with a well known incumbent and a challenger that no one outside his/her family has heard of.  If we are both limited to $500,000 in campaign spending, or $1,000,000, then the advantages my opponent has in name recognition, electioneering via my aides paid for with taxpayer rather than campaign funds, and more will be locked in for the incumbent.  Is this wrong, or just weaker rhetoric?
    Lastly, say we have a presidential election, where even the homeless are bombarded with information about each candidate.  These campaigns more than any appear to well-funded enough to fully saturate voters with the targeted information each side wants them to hear.  Is there any significant advantage that the party controlling more spending really has in such a race?  What compels me, the voter, to support the candidate that spent the most money? In this race or any other? Even if I disagree with the ads or the opinion articles or the press releases?
  15. Anonymous

    It would be nice if we could mach such information available without the IRS and activists harassing, villifying and conspiring to keep people with whom they disagree quiet on the issues they disagree about.  Or if people like the poor Mozilla CEO didn’t get hounded out of their jobs for supporting causes they believe in.

  16. Anonymous

    “Fair elections”



    imagine a competitive political campaign for a small state-wide or large city-wide office, with a well known incumbent and a challenger that no one outside his/her family has heard of.  If we are both limited to $500,000 in campaign spending, or $1,000,000, then the advantages my opponent has in name recognition, electioneering via his aides paid for with taxpayer rather than campaign funds, and more will be locked in for the incumbent.  Is this wrong, or just weaker rhetoric?

  17. Kyle Martinez

    but if money is speech, can we sue the government for infringing on our First Amendment rights by taxing us?

  18. mechytech

    I think you are referring to the “Times, Places, and Manner…” for your reference. Time and place is obviously not in play here, and Manner seems to refer to the manner in which the voting is done. For example, how the person’s register, how the votes are collected, or what machinery the state prefers to use in vote collection. This does not mention campaign finance directly, and it seems that “Manner” was only referring to the task of vote collection. Especially since the word “manner” was placed right next to “time and place.” Even if manner included campaign finance, there is nothing in this phrase to suggest that campaign finance MUST be regulated. 

  19. mechytech

    If no one is concerned about fair media, then why are the politicians campaign spending so dependent on getting the the most air-time on our media outlets? 

  20. Mike Hines

    Is there a crowding-out effect that takes place when one point of view has purchased an overwhelming number of media placements? If I see and hear 100 messages “For” for each one “Against”, is that crowding-out of the “Against” message infringing on the rights of the “Against” folks to be heard?

    If crowding-out is not a concern, then it would be easy to create a situation in which a tyranny of the majority (or simply one enormously wealthy individual) can crowd-out any opposing viewpoint.
    Does anyone see this as a problem? What solution does not infringe on 1st amendment rights?
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