Feature photo by Christine Roy

Like Junk Mail, Junk Speech is Trash Talk

Freedom of speech isn’t what it used to be. Toward the end of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st, its definition was changed in two unprecedented rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, what’s called free speech has only a superficial resemblance to what its anti-federalist proponents demanded be included in a Bill of Rights before they would agree to ratify the U.S. Constitution back in 1789.

If words mean anything then paid speech is not free speech. Speech that is purchased is not “free.” This fact exposes the error animating the Supreme Court decisions in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978) and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, (2010) in which the majority equated money spent by corporations to influence legislation and elections with a corporate “person’s” right of free speech.

Photo by GiorgioTrovato

I have written elsewhere of corporate “personhood,” so I’ll get to the point: a definition of “free speech” worthy of the traditional reverence afforded the term would eliminate from its ambit the chaos of words crafted contractually by lobbyists and public relations firms hired to sell products, laws, and candidates to the rest of us. Packaged missives fill our ears and eyes daily, and distance us from our natural presence of mind. Commercial mini-dramas punctuate radio pop songs, TV programs, and Spotify “free” half-hour song lists. Bait and switch internet searches, highway billboards, fast-talking side-

effect disclosures at the end of every euphoric dramatization of the benefits of the newest unpronounceable pill: it’s the landscape of judicially redefined free speech in America.  And it’s an utter mess. Wouldn’t you say?

Look Ma! No Hands!

What’s dishonest about calling these one-way verbal assaults “free speech” is that no discernible human being claims agency and responsibility for the words expressed. It is a truism that with rights come responsibilities. In the case of commercial speech, where the corporate shield protects human beneficiaries from liability, the connection between rights and responsibilities has been severed.

The system of law established by surreal judicial fiat has had real-life consequences that paid media pundits studiously gloss over or ignore. That’s because journalists lost their independence and freedom of expression when print and broadcast news departments were redefined as corporate profit centers and everything broadcasted by media corporations became paid speech, not free speech. Nevertheless, paid speech has taken over public discourse on all fronts, and that has been the ruination of our right as people to both a free press and the concept of freedom of speech. Wouldn’t you say?

Photo by Thomas Charters

The Price of Liberty is to Never Monetize It

Personal experience brought the stark contrast between an absolute right of people to speak their minds, and government bias in favor of commercial speech for hire. Even before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling made the money spent by wealthy corporations on advertisers and lobbyists, who transformed their rhetorical wordsmithing into the equivalent of human free speech, I saw how corporations interfere in the constitutional relationship between American citizens and their supposed government representatives. Long before the Court turned graft into legal free speech, lobbyists and influencers made money talk.

In 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, popularly known as the McCain–Feingold Act, became law. I was honored to receive from Senator John McCain a signed pass into the Senate gallery to witness the final vote. Two years earlier, on October 14th, 2000, I was arrested for a third time for making a speech in the US Capitol Rotunda to raise awareness of the destruction of democracy via corrupt money exchanges between politicians and corporations. On November 9th of that year, I was arraigned. Addressing the court, I spoke as a private citizen accused of violating a law that forbids me from verbally petitioning my government for a redress of grievances within what has been called “the House of the People,” the U.S. Capitol building.

Photo by Rainerzufall1234

As I peacefully allowed my hands to be handcuffed behind me, I watched paid lobbyists walking unmolested alongside representatives of the people, advocating for legislation advantageous to their paymasters. The sad irony of how the right of free speech had been redefined to favor paid speech reminded me of the biting adage that says, “freedom of the

press belongs to those who own one.”  I propose an addendum: “freedom of political speech belongs to those who own a legislator.”

The Supreme Court made it difficult for citizens to stand in defense of an absolute right of free speech because it expanded the common sense meaning of the term to embrace commoditized, irresponsible speech. Paid-for speech where no identifiable human is ultimately responsible for the content, has supplanted the voice of the citizenry. Lawmakers and judges respond to entreaties that are shaped by corporate priorities which are quite frequently at odds with the common good. Good commoners are being poisoned and scammed and disenfranchised and colonized body and soul despite their entreaties for official protection.  Americans are regularly fined and jailed and blacklisted and slandered for speaking out forcefully against this corrupt technical legality that is no republic, but a corporate state, a fascist chimera waiting only for an autocratic dictator to step in and make it official. 

If we are to reclaim the judicially extinguished human right of free speech, we’re going to have to find the courage to call this mess of a nation what it is. The MAGA crowd isn’t shy about voicing their inarticulate anger, misdirected as it is by blind faith in the autocrat waiting in the wings, but the Progressive crowd seems largely to lack the courage necessary to honestly critique the lesser of two evils stuck to their soles with the same ferocity with which they lambast the political subversives on the right.

Photo by Tom Coe

In the struggle ahead some will be jailed, their lawyers sanctioned for challenging anti-democratic precedent. An avalanche of media meddling and propaganda, and conspiracy hype will sully the character of those freely expressing their human longing for true freedom of speech. They will come under unrelenting attack by paid advocates for privileged corporate speech. But when the traditional right of free speech has been ransomed at last from bondage, and the liability-free purveyors of speech-for-hire find themselves once again

subordinate to popular governance, generations yet unborn will marvel and agree that the cost will have been worth the justice it restored. Wouldn’t you say?  

The post Wouldn’t You Say? – Paid Speech Isn’t Freedom of Speech appeared first on CELDF.