The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and of the press as well as the right to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. The Supreme Court has recognized that these right establish a right of association, reasoning that “"implicit in the right to engage in activities protected by the First Amendment" is "a corresponding right to associate with others in pursuit of a wide variety of political, social, economic, educational, religious, and cultural ends.”
This afternoon, the Milwaukee Common Council will be asked to oppose these constitutional protections.
On the agenda is a meaningless resolution asking the Council to endorse an amendment to the Constitution establishing that “only human beings--not corporations, unions, nonprofit organizations, or similar associations--are endowed with constitutional rights, and that limiting political contributions and spending is not equivalent to restricting political speech .”
Now, the Milwaukee Common Council has about as much influence on whether the Constitution will be amended as I do. This is a classic political stunt by which elected officials seek to genuflect to some grand cause that they have no ability to further rather than attend to their jobs. It’s not surprising. Empty gestures are easy. Governing is hard.
But we should be clear about what this empty gesture endorses. It is not liberty. It is not equality. It is fascism.
Yes, I chose that word deliberately and with great care.
Should the Constitution be amended in the silly way that the Common Council is being asked to endorse, organizations like the ACLU and NAACP would have no right to advocate for their members. This newspaper would have no constitutionally protected freedom to publish. The Bush administration would have been free to shut down MoveOn.org. All of these entities are “corporations.”
Both prongs of the proposed amendment would eviscerate the freedom of association (persons who gather together to speak typically incorporate or form “organizations”) and the freedom of speech. To say that limiting “political spending” is not restricting political speech is to say that the government can deprive advocacy organizations of the means to speak. In the brave new world that the proposed amendment would establish, the government could silence unwanted voices by denying them the ability to effectively communicate their views. Want to publish a book or magazine? Put up a website or make a movie? Hire canvassers to distribute literature? It all costs money.
Yes, I understand the motivation. Sponsors believe that people who are able to spend a greater amount of money on politics have an unfair advantage and government is sold to the highest bidder. But there is virtually no evidence that this actually happens (money tends to be on both sides of most elections and there are countervailing advantages) or that the blunderbuss proposed is necessary to address it.