Editorial: Money is not speech


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In 2010, the United States Supreme Court decided in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations, labor unions, and other groups could spend unlimited funds on independent political advertising. The court reasoned that these organizations had the same right to free speech that humans do and that money equals political speech.

This led to the massive growth in Super PACs (political action committees), which pool all their donors’ money together to pay for political advertisements. Excluding political parties, outside spending on the 2012 general election amounted to around $1 billion, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Iowa voters know the horrors of the political campaign season. The national attention is nice for a time, but at some point, it’s just too much. The attack ads with ominous overtones, virtually predicting the collapse of civilization if this guy or that guy is elected become tiresome and, depending on the Supreme Court decision in an ongoing court case, even more money may soon seep into the realm of political advertising.

On Tuesday, protesters gathered at the Iowa Capitol to protest against the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court case. If the plaintiff wins, the court would effectively remove restrictions on campaign contributions from individuals.

It’s important not to exaggerate the effect money has on political campaigns. Resources matter, but as Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2012 showed, money isn’t everything. Conservative Super PACs outspent their liberal opposition by 2-1, yet President Obama was re-elected.

Nevertheless, these unlimited campaign contributions gives corporations a much larger voice compared to average Americans, who have far less money to donate. Likewise, imposing limits on how much individuals can donate to political campaigns helps maintain a fairness that avoids allocating political speech via dollars donated. These rules protect everyone else’s free speech from being buried beneath the speech of millionaires and billionaires, who can donate more than any average American could ever dream of having.

After losing his case in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Shaun McCutcheon of Alabama is challenging the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 at the Supreme Court. He wanted to donate funds to numerous candidates that would exceed the limits on contributions to individual campaigns and the aggregate donation limits to all candidates in a two-year election cycle.

However, the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 in the case of Buckley v. Valeo that limits on individual donations to candidates’ campaigns are justified while donating to political advocacy groups is not. The court also explained in its ruling that the government may impose total political contribution limits to avoid corruption and the appearance of corruption.

The Supreme Court effectively decided that while there may be limits on campaign and committee contributions, individuals can still join political advocacy organizations, volunteer for their preferred political interests, or donate money to independent political groups.

For the court to rule in the plaintiff’s favor in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission would violate legal precedent and be terribly shortsighted, as doing so would pose a threat to the appearance of legitimate democracy, which itself is important. For the American people to have trust in the political system, they must believe that their voices count and it’s hard to trust politicians who receive massive campaign contributions from individuals who can easily outspend the average citizen’s donations several times over.

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