Speech And Consquences

This past week the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions have the right to spend as much money to support whatever candidate they chose in a Presidential election. The ruling is controversial since it has struck down roughly 100 years of law that restricted corporate spending on political speech.

In a dissent on part of the ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the part of the law that demands disclosure of who is associated with an advertisement or endorsement of a candidate. In short, the ad can run without attribution. Thomas’ logic is impeccable. Controversial opinions will tend to get backlash. Appropriate and inappropriate backlash.

Here’s also where Thomas is wrong. Part of what keeps free speech from becoming a free-for-all is that the opinions and facts are signed. Putting your name to something makes you accountable for what you say. Yes, there are consequences for what we say. There should be.

As a Christian, I need to guard my tongue as well as my writing. Which is why I am surprised in Hadley Arkes comments on First Things supporting Justice Thomas. In his article, Arkes points out that :

Justice Thomas is magnificently right in making the case that the whole scheme of requiring the public disclosure of contributions is something that deserves to be struck down. One could argue in this way: The right to engage in legitimate associations should entail the right to engage in those associations with confidentiality, for the disclosure could make a person vulnerable to pressures that have, as their purpose, intimidating him from engaging in projects that are quite legitimate.

Granted, we should have the right to keep our associations private. Arkes’ example, however has nothing to do with election disclosure:

The best example comes from the old case in which the Court had struck down the move to require teachers in Alabama to disclose their associations. The concern was that membership in the NAACP could threaten one’s job, especially when teachers did not know they were hired for the next year until they received their contract. My own reading of NAACP v. Alabama (1958) was that this decision had to rest with the individual himself, for no one knew as keenly as he did the pressures and threats that were directed against him.

Here’s a more modern problem that Arkes doesn’t deal with. A corporation wants to have a certain candidate elected who agrees with their position. That corporation sets up a dummy organization that makes it look like there are lots of ordinary people who agree and are supporting that point of view. When, in fact, it is only the corporation that is expressing that view. The vernacular for this is Astroturfing. The problem is that the corporation is misrepresenting  who is really advertising. I DO want to find out whose opinion I am listening to. I DO want honestyin public discourse.

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