Monday, March 15, 2010

Making Free Speech Expensive

The public square has always been as much a metaphor as a real place, but in either case it's on the endangered list. Shopping malls pretty much led to the extinction of the traditional town or village square in most American communities. The money-is-speech doctrine is doing the same to the metaphoric version.

Those who wish to control speech in this country don't have to engage in censorship or book burning to achieve their aims. All they have to do is commercialize speech and then make it prohibitively expensive. Turn the proverbial public square into a gated neighborhood with an entry fee so high that most people are priced out. The right to speak is an empty one if entering the public square involves paying a small fortune for air time or otherwise compensating those who get to decide whether yours will be among the voices heard.

I've made this point before - in an Earth Day speech back in 2003 and at Fighting Bob Fest in 2007 and probably a thousand other times - but a letter that arrived by certified mail today put this issue in a whole new light. The letter was from a law firm in Virginia representing the group Citizens United claiming that the Democracy Campaign's protest of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on election financing (that we called "Citizens United Against Citizens United") is a trademark infringement.

I'm having a hard time deciding whether the letter is more remarkable for its stupidity or its irony or the utter audacity of its premise. It claims we've created the impression that our protest was "somehow originated by, affiliated or associated with, connected to and/or approved by Citizens United - which it is not." That's the stupid part. Anyone looking at the online petition or the Facebook page can clearly see that this effort was organized by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and is protesting the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, not the special interest group itself.

The ironic part is that this group described the outcome of the case as a great victory for the First Amendment and free speech, but now seeks to stifle the speech of others who have a different view of the ruling's implications for political speech and the health of our democracy.

The audacious part is the presumption that some private interest can claim ownership of words like "citizens" and "united."

It's apparently not enough for those who wish to control political speech to own the place where public discourse occurs. It seems they also are intent on owning the terms of the debate.


Brad V said...

Your logic fails to account for the fact that nobody is forced to listen to corporate-backed political advocacy.

And it fails to recognize the reality that individual members of the electorate will be just as likely to reject corporate-backed electoral advocacy as they are to fall sway to it.

Thus, I find it highly ironic that you construe the results of Citizens United as something akin to censorship.

If anyone's verging on censorship in this debate (the direct Citizens United conflict with your organization aside) it's you. You seem to think that any speech by a corporation is automatically inherently worth less to the marketplace of ideas than speech of other speakers. You don't seem to think it possible that the electorate can handle speech by corporation, and so you're willing to ban it. If you had your way, you, too, wouldn't need to resort to book burning. You would simply inflame the population and get a majority to back your own special brand of censorship.

clyde winter said...

The particular and special rights to free speech, under the Constitution, were meant by the framers and by the Congress and the states, when they ratified the 14th Amendment, to apply to persons, not to corporations.

I don't see any justification for asserting that WDC is a proponent of censorship.

Here's the skinny on it:

James said...

Mike, you are spot on about how the rich are working to make speech proprietary. You see it in election campaigns. You see it in media ownership. And yes, you see it in our legal system as the rich even go so far as to make the less well off pay attorneys to defend their right to even use everyday terms.

Anonymous said...

When Brad V. says "you construe the results of Citizens United as something akin to censorship," he unwittingly argues in WDC's defense. He casually referred to the Supreme Court ruling as "Citizens United" - the shorthand for the case's full name (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). That's what WDC is doing when it calls its protest Citizens United Against Citizens United. They are using the words in a descriptive sense, not poaching on this group's trademark. This is not trademark infringement, it's just political commentary.

Anonymous said...

Brad V. also fails to make the distinction that a corporation can buy media time to make their comments, meaning that we are in a way forced to listen to their rhetoric repeatedly. This is a one way communication and does not allow anyone to disagree or present alternative views due to the cost of equal media time or in the case of CU, a lawsuit to quell the descent. There is also no reason to believe that the corp will announce that the views being presented are their views and not facts, as is often the case.

There is no basis for his argument since the rift is with the Supreme Court decision, not with CU specifically. CU is name fixed to this case as Coke was to ordering a cola in a restaurant a few years ago. There is no effort in WDC to stop the voice of CU, while CU has shown that they are ready to stifle speech now. WDC is protesting a court finding, CU is trying to stifle protest.

Rob H

Anonymous said...

Just because some moronic corporate executives pay their moronic attorneys lots of money to write a moronic, stupid, nasty letter --- what's the big deal? Let them waste their money.

Attorneys do that all the time. All they can hope for is intimidation. They'd never have the audacity to actually take it to court.

The word "citizen" doesn't belong to them. Nor does the word "united".

That's what the court will tell them. But, they already know that.

Man MKE said...

I disagree that outfits like Citizens United wouldn't dare go to court. Of course, well-heeled outfits like Citizens United not only have increasing license (or at least the chutzpah) to appropriate democratic-sounding phrases. Their mere threat of legal action against anyone who disagrees in public -- including citizens who are united -- is often enough to quash dissent.

But when it is not, then such corporatists and their bundles of cash can bankrupt nearly anyone they drag into court. Voila!

The corporatists have effectively defined free speech as money, and the more money you have, the more free speech you get to have. In this opinion they are now joined by the bare majority of right-wingers on the US Supreme Court. Power not only corrupts; it insists upon destroying anyone who might threaten its quest for hegemony.