In its efforts to protect our freedom of speech, the United States Supreme Court often treads a very fine line. The challenge for the court is determining when a particular type of speech unduly threatens the public’s well-being.
In a recent case, the court decided that distasteful speech was not unduly harmful, presumably because, while the speech in question might have been distressing, the distressed could safely have chosen to ignore it. But the court has set limits on speech that it believes could put lives in jeopardy, such as calling out “fire” in a crowded place, and risking the trampling of people trying to escape.
When the court determined that monetary contributions to politicians are protected speech, it may have strayed across the line into an ethical and legal swamp. Protecting the spoken and written word is one thing. Protecting the political mantra — “money talks” — is another story. It is close to condoning bribery.
When lobbyists argue the merits of legislative and regulatory action, enlightenment can result. However, the practice of special interests paying for specific govermental actions is nothing short of corrupt. Sadly, the way Washington politicians appear to work is by adhering to a pay-to-play script behind closed doors and then covering their sins by releasing sugar-coated sound bites to the press.
When it comes to big issues, lobbyists tend to be the most knowledgeable people in Washington. The public is well-served when lobbyists from all sides of an issue work to educate the most challenged people in Washington, politicians. But things can still go wrong. The public interest can and does get lost when the merits of competing arguments are set aside and policies favored by the most generous campaign donors are adopted.
The next time the Supreme Court gets to act on the constitutionality of “money talks,” it ought to cleanse itself of the appearance of suborning corruption and prohibit the unseemly sale of legislative and regulatory outcomes.