Response to Jeffrey Beall's "Librarians and the Threat to Free Political Speech"

Mark Rosenzweig

October 15, 2011

The opinion column by Mr. Beall is, intentionally or not, a brief, not for individual free speech and intellectual freedom, but for unlimited corporate power, power to drown out individual rights, individual speech, with the overwhelming force, not of words, but of money and the overt and covert political influence corporate wealth can, if unregulated, purchase and deploy to extraordinary effect.

Mr. Beall's arguments have been well-rehearsed by right-wing organizations (Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, etc.) representing the "free market" ideology of unfettered corporate power. These groups, for decades, have been — as part of their agenda and as elements of an increasingly organized, coordinated strategy – assiduously seeking to overturn long-standing legal limits on corporations' ability to grossly influence free democratic elections, protections that have, over many years, been put in place precisely because of the insolent political abuses of which big business had been guilty, and attempting to turn back the statutory political "campaign finance reforms" which have tried to address big business corporations' more or less successful attempts to circumvent those limits and continue to subvert the political process. In today's political landscape, where corporations already control literal armies of lobbyists and utilize monopolistic mass media to define all the parameters of our political options — the very frames and limits of our political debates — the further power afforded by complete deregulation of corporate financial contributions to political parties, campaigns and candidates creates a virtually total corporate/minority domination of political processes which were meant to represent the interests of the entire people.

To win the sympathy of people outside the corporate elite for this corporate takeover of democratic politics, one trick is to try to get people to think that somehow attempts to curb corporate power are analogous to curtailment of individuals' cherished First Amendment rights. Against the backdrop of the growing anti-corporate movement, which has just crystallized around the Occupy Wall Street movement, a movement having to struggle for its right to protest for redress of grievances in the face of police repression, articles like Mr. Beall's are sad attempts to provide a fig-leaf for the powerful interests which have been effectively restructuring our society into an oligarchy serving wealth and privilege, a plutocracy in which, as the OWS protesters put it, the interests of the so-called "1 percent" totally dominate those of the "99 percent." It is an argument which justifies a situation where the political process which was meant to assure the democratic rights of the majority of people has been co-opted by the corporate elite.

The Supreme Court's decision to turn the case of Citizens United into a more general consideration of the so-called "free speech" rights of corporations finally presented the opportunity to overturn settled legal precedent which had established limits to corporate power over the political process. With the Court's framing of the issues at stake and its finding in favor of the plaintiffs, the Justices have not only disencumbered corporations from existing limits on electoral party financial contributions, but have opened new vistas for political manipulation by the interests of concentrated wealth and the corporate business sector, making virtually unlimited, anonymous financing of candidates and parties in elections a new reality – and one dangerous in the extreme to what is left of our fraying democratic culture.

The two underpinnings of the arguments Mr. Beall offers for his assertion that those who are appalled at the implications of the Citizens United decision are opponents of constitutionally-guaranteed "free speech" are that corporations are people and that money is speech. Neither is true.

Business corporations are not individuals, not natural persons. As Justice Stevens noted in his dissent to the Citizens United decision: "Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires"; their 'personhood' often serves is a useful legal fiction." Within that juridical construct, corporations, unlike individuals, have special rights and privileges that differentiate them from natural persons. Corporations, among other things, have "limited liability" and "perpetual life." They are not, in any case, as Beall would have it, merely collections of individuals; they are organized entities which have special characteristics, status and powers which no individual has. Corporations, too, are not citizens and, indeed, many of the most powerful corporations seeking to avail themselves of the unfettered opportunity to control politicians and electoral campaigns are foreign companies or transnationals which, after Citizens United, will have unprecedented power to influence the direction of American national policy beyond mere "lobbying" and the other means they have used in the past to bend the political process to serve a greed which seemingly knows no limits.

The idea that money is speech is also fundamentally specious. The oft-used metaphor of the "marketplace of ideas" references the "agora" of ancient Greece, but it has — sometimes carelessly, sometimes intentionally — been turned into something quite different, equating this metaphorical "marketplace" with the actual economic market, and from there, through further elision, equating it, completely illegitimately, with so-called "free market," an ideological construct beloved of libertarian apologists for the complete deregulation of corporate power. The legal trope of "money is speech" is actually of relatively recent vintage (it goes back to the Supreme Court decision in 1976, Buckley v. Valeo). In this framework, not only is money speech, but like speech, the quantity of money in politics can’t be regulated by government: more money is just more speech.

Beall, trying to win the sympathy of fellow librarians by appealing to our hatred of censorship, claims: "This anti–free speech movement is the moral equivalent of a book banning by excluding political speech some find objectionable—in this case, corporate political speech." Nobody is trying to exclude "objectionable political speech"; that is not the intention at all of the opponents of the Citizens United decision. What's more, there is no analogy between "book-burning," and regulating the influence of unlimited corporate money on politics. The government has a legitimate interest in defense of popular sovereignty (the rule of "we, the people") to defend the electoral process from manipulation by powerful vested interests. The fact is that both the transparency of political processes which is the necessary condition for free and fair political debate and the "level playing-field" which we need to assure in democratic politics are completely undermined by the Citizens United decision which, rationalizing anonymous and unlimited financial manipulation as "speech," in effect grotesquely privileges the corporate role in society, giving it an unchallengeable and often invisible advantage dwarfing, crushing in its influence and efficacy the contest of ideas and processes of persuasion which are not backed by corporate power and cash.

Librarians, with an interest in defending the real free speech of real people and the democratic politics which are built upon it, should reject the use of the watchwords of intellectual freedom as an ideological cover for the abusive and destructive practices, pre-emptive of free and fair democratic discourse, of "corporate persons" for whom money is speech.

Beall's article "Librarians and the Threat to Free Political Speech," American Libraries, August 30, 2011, is found here.

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