Reflections on Stanley Fish (on Campaign Finance)

September 3, 2013
posted by Bob Bauer
In his recently published criticism of Stanley Fish, Russell Jacoby returns to Fish's position (in Jacoby’s words) that “there are no abstract principles outside of society and history.” “Making It,” The New Republic (September 2, 2013 at 36). This position, Jacoby reminds the reader, accounts for Fish’s insistence “that there’s no such thing as free speech”—that speech has no worth independent of context and any value it is assigned is the outcome of a political struggle. See, e.g. Stanley Fish, There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech (1994) at 102. (“Free speech is not independent value but a political prize….”)

The SCOTUSblog symposium on the McCutcheon case continued with postings on various aspects of the speech and government interests involved in the contribution/expenditure distinction. Justin Levitt argues that overall, in granting more protection to expenditures, the distinction correctly ranks the speech values. The independent expenditure is pure self-expression, the spender’s “unique” view; the contribution helps the candidate’s speech, and as he may speak as he pleases, the message he communicates and the “unique” view of the contributor may well diverge. Tamara Piety affirms the Court’s view that “the expressive interests of contributions are minimal” and that restrictions on them may be necessary to protect against loss of public confidence in government, to enhance the competitiveness of elections, and to focus governmental energies on voters and not contributors.

What this analysis misses in following Buckley is the difference between an interest in speaking about politics, and an interest in effective political speech. The contribution and expenditure distinction is rooted in the first of these interests, and it is for this reason that the expenditure is the constitutionally privileged form of speech. In the Buckley view, the spender speaking just for herself may well treasure volume; the more said, the better, in order to drive the points home. By contrast, because the contributor supposedly speaks through another, “by proxy,” a strictly limited amount given still completes the expressive act of association and fully vindicates this more limited First Amendment interest. The contributor, however, in funding candidate speech is motivated by a deeper interest than Buckley accounts for—an interest in effective political speech.

501(c)(3) Politics

August 15, 2013
posted by Bob Bauer
A report produced by the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations calls for the reform of the IRS ban on campaign intervention by 501(c)(3) groups. Government Regulation of Political Speech by Religious and Other 501(c)(3) Organizations (2013). It makes the point that the test by which the IRS judges political intervention is loosely constructed and unpredictable in application. The report also notes the additional problem that IRS enforcement is erratic; this is not the agency’s favorite assignment and the agency by and large either does what it can to avoid it, or gives up quickly in the face of dedicated resistance. The report’s authors, presenting their recommendations to Senator Chuck Grassley, propose a remedy in two major parts: one to address the treatment of “no cost” sermons and other religious statements made in the ordinary course of a religious organization’s operations, and the other to cover any other institutional expenditures for political purposes. The first of the recommendations makes sense, but the second does not.
Professor Erwin Chemerinsky has succinctly delineated the options available to the Court in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. Erwin Chemerinsky, Symposium: The distinction between contribution limits and expenditure limits, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 12, 2013, 2:42 PM), He then notes with regret one voice missing from the current Court’s jurisprudential chorus: the voice for reversing Buckley v. Valeo’s special protections for “expenditures,” once supplied by John Paul Stevens. Justice Stevens famously called in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri PAC, 528 U.S. 377 (2000) for acceptance of the "simple point” that “money is property; it is not speech.” Id. at 398.

The Super PACs in the Campaign Finance Reform Debate

July 24, 2013
posted by Bob Bauer
What to do about super PACs? Joel Gora, no admirer of campaign finance restrictions, argues that we should defend them. Joel Gora, Free Speech, Fair Elections, and Campaign Finance Laws: Can They Co-Exist? Brooklyn Law School, Legal Studies Paper No. 346 (2013). If they have come to typify the problems with money in politics, Gora contends, it is because we fail to appreciate their contribution to free speech, or their origins in long-standing independent expenditure jurisprudence. He adds: they didn't have the impact on the outcome that their critics widely feared. In other words, super PACs are good things, not bad things.