Money may be protected speech but apparently, speech that asks for money is not.
Two recent legal cases about money and free speech unveil a contradiction in our application of the First Amendment. One deals with the right of the rich to influence politics with a lot of money, the other deals with the right of the poor to ask for a little to buy a meal or bus ticket.
On October 8, the Supreme Court heard arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) that could open the floodgates on unlimited campaign contributions. If McCutcheon succeeds, the case could lift limits on how much money an individual can spend in an election cycle.
If the Court sides with McCutcheon, it could strike down aggregate limits on campaign contributions in the name of free speech. Currently, the donation limit is $48,000 per cycle, which enables giving the maximum amount of money to 18 national candidates per election. Even if the FEC could still limit donations to a single campaign, rich donors would see a new rush of power, gaining influence in more elections. Every politician in the country would basically need to beg this small group to finance their next job interview with the American people.
If the court overturns years of campaign finance reform, it will take a constitutional amendment to distinguish unlimited campaign money from protected speech.
Meanwhile, the homeless and unemployed are experiencing the right to express their need for money taken away.
In Arizona, a 77-year-old woman was arrested for asking an undercover cop for a bus fare under a state law that forbade panhandling. This law was subsequently challenged in federal court and overruled, but other similar laws exist nationwide.
Since the recession, the U.S. has passed a litany of laws making it illegal to ask for even a small amount of cash. Cities and states across the country have banned panhandling and “loitering to beg” in response to increased poverty.
The state of Michigan faces a similar challenge to its panhandling law. Even some more liberal cities have proposed or implemented panhandling bans, like Baltimore, MD, Bennington, VT, and Worcester, MA.
We are becoming a nation where free speech is granted only to the rich and powerful while the rest of us are increasingly rendered utterly voiceless.
Andrew Small is an intern of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.