The recent Supreme Court decision on the Citizens United case has granted freedom of speech to corporate entities, and there is a need to illustrate how the unequal distribution of money results in the unequal right to free speech using the lens of a past Supreme Court case.

Any attempt to enact campaign finance reform in the United States must meet the obstacle of a Supreme Court decision on a case called Buckley versus Valeo in 1976. The case concerned the brother of conservative commentator and elder William Buckley. The brother, James Buckley, was a sitting U.S. Senator from New York and gigantic monetary contributions to campaigns were considered as a type of bribery due to campaign finance reform that was passed in 1974. The campaign finance law set limits to monetary contributions to campaigns. However, the Supreme Court did not agree, retaining some contribution limits in the law and officially stating that giving money to a campaign was an act of political speech and therefore was protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Since then, attempts to ban soft money and PAC contributions in campaigns have been hobbled by the argument that it is through these donations that individuals express their support and political beliefs. This connection of speech and money has been used to subsequently normalize the idea that large business interests and corporations also have the right to contribute money as free speech.

Because of the ironclad logic behind the connection between donations and political expression, it is impossible to overturn the spirit of Buckley versus Valeo and its effects on other legal interpretations. What should be offered is a way to make the original court decision conform to the protection of free speech rather than a loophole for concentrated big-money interests to subvert the democratic election process and its expression of the will of the people. Looking at the legal protection of an act of speech, one sees that there are limits to that right. The primary limit is that no speech act of one citizen is protected which takes the right of expression away from another citizen. From this primordial base it is possible to limit hate speech, or the proverbial “yelling fire in a crowded theatre”, since that type of speech can pose a threat to other citizens directly. There is also ingrained in the Constitution the principle of equal protection under the law, whereby the law is carried out to the same degree for each citizen for whom the law originally applies.

Moving on to the subject of monetary contributions to political campaigns, giving money is an act of speech that expresses personal political beliefs. However, the ability of rich individuals and corporations to give large unlimited amounts of soft money, money given to a candidate’s political party instead of directly to the candidate, makes those contributors the only influence on the candidate. These same contributors often donate to the opposing sides in the same election in order to insure that the winner will be answerable to their narrow interests and agenda, whomever that winner may be. The gigantic amounts of money given by a few overpower the ability of smaller contributions, and other ways of influence, of everyday individuals to be expressed in order for candidates to be fully responsive. In other words, contributions as an act of speech by a powerful few prevent the expression of dissenting political views through smaller and more humble donations to either the same candidates or an alternative guided by populist will.

Speech, as contributing money, is formally protected but the protection is applied unequally due to the disparity of monetary resources between most of the nation’s population and the few who control major corporations and businesses. Campaign finance reform and public financing of elections must address the unequal ability to give money, and from there to gain influence, by limiting campaign contributions and banning soft money which is very difficult to track and monitor. Monetary donations can only be eliminated by public financing, and because of its ability to express political beliefs must be pulled back to allow more direct forms of political expression and speech to be used to have the concerns of citizens met equally by their candidates for public office. The only other choice is to insure that all citizens earn the same amount in order to come from an equal position of monetary influence. Candidates must be beholden to the needs and desires of the people rather than the unequal ability to give large amounts of money. Since money augments any type of expression, and is needed to fund any political campaign, the unequal ability to donate prevents many from practicing their right to free speech. The fact that the original Supreme Court case of Buckley versus Valeo can be used as precedent to increase the ability of corporations to give money in the future demonstrates that those with the most monetary resources end up with the upper hand.