In August 2010, Jane Mayer, a writer for the New Yorker, published a story about the influence the Koch brothers and their “dark money” had on the Tea Party movement . One would imagine that this would not make her very popular with the Kochs. One would not imagine, however, that the brothers would get revenge by hiring private investigators, digging into Mayer’s background and private life, and trying to discredit her by falsely accusing her of plagiarism.
Mayer’s words were protected under the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, but what about Mayer herself? The Koch brothers could not force websites or magazines to remove Mayer’s article — that would be a clear violation of the ideas of freedom of speech and press. Nor could they, or the parts of the government that are loyal to and dependent on the Koch empire, directly force Mayer to stay silent. So they took a circuitous route, attempting to defame and discredit Mayer so that either she would quiet down, or so those magazines and websites would choose not to publish her words. But the not-so-secret truth is that they wouldn’t really have had a choice, had the Kochs succeeded in their attack.
Fortunately, support from other writers and publishers helped Mayer thwart the attack by the Koch brothers — but she is certainly not the only journalist or private citizen who has faced pressure to withdraw statements that could hurt a political career, invite police investigation, or incite a public upwelling of support for a position deemed unsuitable by those in power. Mayer’s case is the exception, not the rule, and it is only publicized because the Kochs failed to silence her.
When I read about Mayer, I thought back to all the class discussions we had this semester. They were often evidence-based — someone would read an article, or listen to a podcast, and that would start a train of conversation that would often involve criticism of governmental actions and political figures. Without freedom of speech and of press, we could not have had half of these talks. I often forget how privileged I am to live in a society where it is not illegal to disagree with, joke about, or protest against the government. I think this is a common problem among Americans, probably because the phrase “freedom of speech” has been used to disguise hate and cruelty under a veil of patriotic acceptance. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone claim freedom of speech when their rude joke or offensive comment lands badly, I’d be as rich as Donald Trump.
But our right to freedom of speech also allows citizens to speak out when they witness corruption or injustice and protects new ideas about how things should be from being crushed before they can gain enough traction and become a movement. And underneath the negative connotations of the phrase “free speech” lies what I believe to be one of the greatest assets a citizen can have — the right to seek out truthful information about the actions of their government, and then the right to discuss and share that information with others. This keeps the government honest and accountable to those it is created to represent.
So what happens when the government is not accountable to all the citizens it should represent? In theory, the above definition of free speech is what we have in the United States today. However, after the 2010 decision in Citizens United v FEC, not all American speech is created equal . Since “money is speech” in this nation, corporations — and individuals too — can donate millions or billions of dollars to whatever candidates they want. They don’t have to disclose how much “dark money” they pay out, or even sometimes where it goes. And since there’s “no such thing as a free lunch,” these candidates have to pay back their donors somehow. So, what happens if a major campaign donor and a regular constituent both write to a senator, both urging them to take opposite positions on a hot-button issue? I think most of them would follow the will of the donor, thereby making their speech more valuable than the speech of an ordinary citizen. This is what Mayer was trying to uncover when she wrote about the Kochs, and this is the greatest threat to our institution of free speech. When those in power begin to believe that the speech of some individuals is worth more simply because those citizens have more money to donate, can we really claim to have freedom of speech? Where is freedom of press when journalists are harassed and slandered for writing articles unfavorable to a wealthy corporation or person, or freedom of assembly when protesters are tear-gassed in the streets?
So how do we fight this corruption of our right to speak out? I think the only way we can is by continuing to exercise this right, and by staying informed about and active in our government (this is part of why I am so happy to have taken this class). Maybe the speech of one billionaire is more valuable than that of one ordinary citizen, but is it more valuable than the speech of a hundred citizens? A thousand? A million? Most social movements start when one person speaks up, and their words are carried to others who will stand with them. Though I believe America is currently practicing a somewhat corrupted version of free speech, I am hopeful for the future; precedent — the civil rights movement, for one — says that the voices of the many will eventually defeat the money of a few.