Saturday, December 11, 2010

Is Money Speaking in California's Race for Governor?

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

In one corner we have Mega-Meg Whitman. In the other corner stands Downtown Oakland Jerry Brown. The fight will not only determine who will be the next governor of the great State of California, but could also tell us whether money really does talk.
Our campaign finance law is based on one primary assumption, that money is speech. If that is true, Meg Whitman sure is talking a lot. Meg Whitman has a lot of money. Good for her. The question is, is it fair for her to be able to tap into her vast personal financial resources for her bid to be the next governor? Whitman has spent more of her own money on her gubernatorial bid, approximately $120 million, than any other candidate in American history. Let me repeat: Meg Whitman, in her maiden campaign for elected office, has spent more of her own funds than any candidate in our country, ever. Has she also spoken more, conveyed more than any other candidate?
In 1976 the Supreme Court concluded that money spent in campaigns is basically the equivalent of speech. For those who follow politics, it is hard to overstate the ramifications of this decision. The court found that because money is speech, the government cannot limit a candidate's ability to use her own funds in a campaign. The court concluded that such a restriction would impermissibly muzzle the speech of a self-financed candidate. Thirty-four years later, enter Meg Whitman. Decidedly unrestricted and ready to spend.
If the Supreme Court is right, presumably I should hear more from, and know more about, Meg Whitman than my overly chatty neighbor, who recently regaled me with a lengthy story about her dog's finicky eating habits. Once the Supreme Court decided money is speech any restriction on the amount of money that could be given or spent in an election has to be analyzed under the First Amendment. The First Amendment stands as a vital protection against governmental censorship, an edict rings out that, "the more speech the better." It is hard to argue with that.
However, when it comes to a candidate's spending of her own money, the public should ask themselves, which situation produces more speech, one in which a wealthy candidate's spending is restricted, or one in which it is not? Framed in the negative, what is more dangerous, restricting a candidate from spending her own money, or risking the possibility that she will drown out the voices of others? There may not be such a thing as too much speech, but there could be something to the idea of too much spending.

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