Why Is the ACLU Helping the Richest Americans Buy Our Elections?
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“All is not well with this law, and I believe it appropriate to state in a judicial opinion why I think this is so,” wrote Guido Calabresi , a U.S. Court of Appeals judge and former Yale Law School dean, in comments to late 2011 ruling. Calabresi’s remarks address the majority's contention in Citizens United —which echoes the national ACLU's view—that unfettered political speech regardless of the speaker is paramount. He began by quoting Luke 21:1-4.
“As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Like Luke, Calabresi noted that the wealthy will drown out the political speech of poorer people by virtue of spending more to send a message—having a larger megaphone. Additionally, he said that such domination of the airwaves also “obscures the depth of each speaker’s views,” as one cannot tell if the voice being eclipsed is whispering, crying or yelling—conveying the intensity of their opinions. “And that is a problem of profound First Amendment significance.”
“There is perhaps no greater a distortive influence on the intensity of expression than wealth differences," he wrote. "The wider the economic disparities in a democratic society, the more difficult it becomes to convey, with financial donations, the intensity of an ordinary citizen's political beliefs. People who care a little, if they are rich, still give a lot. People who care a lot must, if they are poor, give only a little. Jesus’ comment about the rich donors and the poor widow says it all.”
In other words, in 2012, when supposedly independent super PACs and political non-profits are raising millions from wealthy individuals and corporations whose actions are coordinated in all but name only with the candidates, and disclosure by those political entities is untimely or non-existent, the nation is facing serious First Amendment issues that do not neatly fit the ACLU’s anti-censorship line.
Convincing the ACLU
The ACLU is a nationwide organization with independent affiliates in every state and Washington, DC, and a headquarters and national legal department in New York. Its board of directors has representatives from every state and from its 500,000 members. As such, it is one of the most powerful legal advocacy organizations in the country.
For decades, people inside and outside the ACLU have tried to get its board to moderate its campaign finance views. Since 1970, it has taken up the issue two dozen times. The key question, according to Neuborne, its former national legal director, is whether today’s rising calls to restrict the wealthiest Americans and institutions from spending unlimited money ‘independent’ of campaigns is just today’s version of censoring society’s latest villain, as the federal government once tried to do with Communists, Nazis, gays, minorities and pornographers—or is something constitutionally different going on in today’s deregulated campaign finance environment?
One of the ACLU board’s long-held assumptions, which was affirmed in the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling, is that candidates and independent groups who spend their own money in elections constitute a form of free speech that must not be regulated. In Buckley, the Court held that a new congressional law's limits on campaign spending by office seekers and independent groups were unconstitutional. It ruled, however, that campaign contribution limits were constitutionally permissible in the interest of preventing corruption or its appearance with candidates, an interest that candidate and independent expenditures did not present. Buckley’s framework has led to today’s billionaires writing million-dollar checks to the supposedly independent super PACs and political non-profits, and in turn, voters in 2012’s early presidential contests hearing their views dominate the airwaves and debate.