Overturn Citizens United, But My Government Shouldn’t Silence Me


Three California Assembly members are attempting to amend the Constitution to nullify the Supreme Court's decision on the controversial Citizens United case by using a state-led procedure outlined in Article 5 of the Constitution. One rule they hope to establish is that spending money is not a form of speech. Although I too disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision, I also believe an over-reaction that threatens our individual liberties is both unnecessary and foolish. 

Before I can convince anyone that personal liberties are at stake, I must fist argue that spending money is indeed a form of speech and is worthy of protection. California Assembly members, Huffington Post bloggers, and Occupy Wall Street protesters have all denied that spending money is a form of speech, but I am compelled to refute their claim because I speak by spending money.

Chipotle’s burritos are a heavenly midday escape from reality’s unforgiving work schedule. My gratitude to the employees and owners of Chipotle for this brief liberation is overflowing, and I express this gratitude every time I visit. I don’t shout my elations as I gleefully wait in line. I don’t write complements with paint and glitter on a poster and stand outside their windows waiving it excitedly. Instead, I communicate my love with a couple Lincolns in the cash register and a Washington in the tip jar every week. It may not be as noticeable as the alternative options, but when it comes time to divvy up the tip jar, I imagine the employees appreciate my kind of gratitude more than the loudest praise or kindest thank you note.

Tips are an easy way to illustrate how spending money is a form of speech. The money I leave is both a thank you and, depending on how much is left, either a compliment to the service or a critique. Spending money in the usual ways is speech as well. When I buy my bagels at the local bakery instead of the Panera, I am making many statements. I like community businesses. I think homemade tastes better. I like the atmosphere of the bakery more. I am also speaking directly to the bakery. Spoken and written words can express gratitude, satisfaction, and loyalty, but so can walking in every week and buying a half dozen bagels.

Political speech receives special protection in our legal system and for good reason. Silencing political speech is one of the most un-American concepts imaginable. Spending money is one of the most common forms of political speech and needs to be protected as such. For many, spending money is the only viable option for them to participate in political speech. I am a good example. I vote in Illinois, but I attend college in Atlanta, Georgia, and am currently interning in Washington, DC. I can’t knock on doors, hand out flyers, hold signs, or reach a phone bank in my voting district. However, I can make monetary donations to the campaigns of candidates that I support. This donation is my political speech, and it should be protected as such. To be clear, removing protection of my right to speech is as wrong as actual infringement.

The number one complaint I hear when I defend my right to speak via spending money is that people have unequal amounts of money, which results in people having unequal means of speech. Obviously this is true, but what is even more obvious is that no one has equal speech regardless of how much money they have. A literate person can write more letters to the editor than an illiterate. Someone who can speak can chant at rallies while a mute cannot. More people hear the views of a talk show host than a stay at home mom, resulting in the host having many more opportunities to convey his speech than the mother. Individual abilities, size of audience, and yes, private property all result in unequal speech, but it is unavoidable and a non issue. 

The backlash against the Citizens United case is understandable and even necessary, but it can go too far. Although I understand and respect the passion of those who seek to undue what Citizens Untied has done, I am obligated to point out that two wrongs do not make a right.

I speak by spending money. Many others do as well. What gives you the right to silence us?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons