I didn't really pay all that much attention to the Supreme Court's election speech case yesterday. But as I learn the reasoning that is driving the dissent by the four Justices on the Left, I am left deeply worried about the future of speech rights.
I really haven't put much time in understanding how Progressives justify strong speech protections for non-political activity (e.g. pornography) while eschewing them for political speech (in the form of multiple types of limits on the amount and timing of speech one is allowed prior to an election). Justice Breyer, in writing for the minority in in McCutcheon, lays out what I suppose is the Progressive position.
But how can liberals, who so expansively interpret other constitutional provisions, narrow the First Amendment so that campaign finance no longer gets protection?
Justice Breyer’s dissent today shows the way, as he revives the old Progressive conception of freedom of speech as serving instrumental purposes (which he calls “First Amendment interests”), rather than protecting individual rights or reining in potential government abuses. And once we identify those “First Amendment interests,” we must limit freedom of speech to ensure that they are advanced.
Thus, Justice Breyer, writes, “Consider at least one reason why the First Amendment protects political speech. Speech does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, political communication seeks to secure government action. A politically oriented ‘marketplace of ideas’ seeks to form a public opinion that can and will influence elected representatives.” Just to make sure he’s not being too subtle, Breyer goes back to the source, Justice Brandeis, citing his opinion in Whitney for the proposition that freedom of speech is protected because it’s ”essential to effective democracy.”
Further showing off his affinity for the Progressive statism of a century ago (noted by Josh Blackman and me here), Breyer turns constitutional history on its head, by declaring that the purpose of the First Amendment was not to prevent government abuses, but to ensure ”public opinion could be channeled into effective governmental action.” ...
Breyer adds that “corruption,” by which he means individuals engaging in too much freedom of speech via campaign donations, ”derails the essential speech-to-government-action tie. Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. Insofar as corruption cuts the link between political thought and political action, a free marketplace of political ideas loses its point.”
This strikes me as both tortured and dangerous. Once one posits that that there is some ill-defined, un-measurable value like "promotion of positive government action" can be balanced against free speech, then the government gets a nearly unlimited ability to limit speech.
James Taranto also highlights parts of the decision
In making the case for the constitutionality of restrictions on campaign contributions, Breyer advances an instrumental view of the First Amendment. He quotes Justice Louis Brandeis, who in 1927 "wrote that the First Amendment's protection of speech was 'essential to effective democracy,' " and Brandeis's contemporary Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who in 1931 argued that " 'a fundamental principle of our constitutional system' is the 'maintenance of the opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people" (emphasis Breyer's).
After citing Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (!) views on the shortcomings of representative democracy, Breyer quotes James Wilson, one of the Founding Fathers, who argued in a 1792 commentary that the First Amendment's purpose was to establish a "chain of communication between the people, and those, to whom they have committed the exercise of the powers of government." Again quoting Wilson, Breyer elaborates: "This 'chain' would establish the necessary 'communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments' between the people and their representatives, so that public opinion could be channeled into effective governmental action."
And here's how Breyer sums it all up: "Accordingly, the First Amendment advances not only the individual's right to engage in political speech, but also the public's interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters."
What is democratic "order"? What the hell is "collective" speech? This is the kind of thing I would expect dictators-masquerading-as-elected-officials to spout as an excuse for suppressing dissent. After all, doesn't dissent interfere with order? How can we have collective speech when there are these folks out there disagreeing so much? Again from Taranto:
It's important to note that when Breyer refers to "collective" rights, what he does not have in mind is individuals exercising their rights by voluntarily collecting themselves into organizations. In fact, the prevailing left-liberal view, most notably with respect to Citizens United v. FEC (2010), is that collections of individuals, at least when they take corporate form, have (or should have) no rights.
The only "collective" that matters to Breyer is the one from which you cannot opt out except by the extreme measure of renouncing your citizenship: "the people" or "the public" as a whole. In Breyer's view, the purpose of the First Amendment is to see that (in Chief Justice Hughes's words) "the will of the people" is done. Individual rights are but a means to that end. To the extent they frustrate it, they ought to be curtailed. You will be assimilated.