Why Money Is Not Speech

The Supreme Court struck the right chord this week in upholding a Missouri law that caps the contributions individuals can make to state political races. A solid 6 to 3 majority of the justices held that states have a right to set such limits in the interest of warding off corruption.

Critics of campaign-finance reform, who argue that political contributions are a form of speech, will lament the decision. But their position has logical and practical problems. As one of the concurring justices said, money is not speech, it's property. And a large transfer of that property to a political campaign carries an implicit, if not explicit, quid pro quo.

Justice David Souter, authoring the majority opinion, clearly identified the problem, and the rationale underlying contribution limits: "Most people assume - I do certainly - that someone making an extraordinarily large contribution is going to get something extraordinary in return." Governments have a duty, he argued, to respond to that perception, which can undermine a people's faith in its government.

The ruling clearly bolsters reformers. By sustaining the current federal limit on individual contributions - $1,000 - as well as state laws based on it, the decision validates efforts to impose further restraints.

But it won't still all controversy. Other campaign-funding cases are making their way in the courts. And this week's decision doesn't settle the hottest issue at the federal level - whether to ban unlimited "soft money" contributions to groups, often party-affiliated, that aren't tied to a particular candidate yet buy ads that benefit candidates.

The battle against soft money has been helped, however. Opponents of a ban invariably proclaim such a measure unconstitutional, a violation of First Amendment free-speech rights. The Souter opinion significantly undermines that position. Those in Congress who want to move forward with campaign-finance reform now have a clearer road.

Devising a political system with credible safeguards against corruption is critical to any democracy. In America, the work has gone on through much of our history. The court's role is a clarifying one, defining boundaries. The main task rightly rests with lawmakers, who must find the will to act in the public's interest.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Why Money Is Not Speech
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today