To some justices on the U.S. Supreme Court — a slim majority, in fact — the answer to that question involves money, lots of it.
By a 5-4 vote, the High Court in the infamous 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, ruled that portions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act, were unconstitutional and that the First Amendment to the Constitution, which protects free speech, prohibited government restrictions on campaign expenditures by corporations and unions.
The result was a tidal wave of campaign spending in the 2012 presidential election, which concluded Tuesday — we hope.
How big a tidal wave? Check out these numbers:
• The 2012 elections cost an estimated $6 billion.
• President Obama and Gov. Romney, both of whom rejected federal public financing, each raised nearly as much as the entire field in the 2004 presidential election.
• In the Ohio Senate race alone, where a Jewish Republican, Josh Mandel, faced Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown, outside groups supporting Mandel, spent twice as much on broadcast ads as Mandel or the state GOP. (Keep in mind, the Citizens United case didn’t touch controls on corporate donations to campaigns, hence the independent spending).
• Also in Ohio, 45,000 ads ran against Brown this campaign season. Nationally, more than 1 million presidential TV ads ran, costing more than $930 million.
Now that this election is over — again, we hope (we are, after all, writing this on Tuesday and memories of the 2000 Florida recount are etched in our minds) — we have questions. Chief among them: What is free speech?
Is the spending of massive amounts of money in a political campaign a form of free speech? Or does it suppress free speech?
Is the free speech of a billionaire who spends several million dollars in a campaign equal to that of an average Joe who can donate $50 to $100 (if that), or does the billionaire, by virtue of his money, have more free speech?
And if he does have more free speech, is that right?
Several of our Supreme Court justices follow the judicial theory of original intent, meaning that their rulings should reflect the framers of the Constitution. But did the framers really have such a scenario in mind? Campaigns awash in money in which a handful of powerful individuals can flood the airwaves —something the framers probably couldn’t envision — with their message?
Don’t kill the messenger; we’re just asking questions. And they’re relevant questions given the unprecedented level of campaign spending this year.
Lastly, is free speech really suppressed if everyone plays on a level and — horrors — regulated playing field?
One campaign ended on Tuesday — again, we hope — but it wouldn’t surprise us in the least if another campaign, one based on these questions, is about to begin.