Comedian Bill Maher made headlines yesterday by announcing he is giving $1 million to President Obama’s super PAC. The donation to Priorities USA Action was, Maher said, “the wisest investment I think I could make,” because he considers that living in a country governed by Obama rather than the Republicans is “worth a million dollars.” Anything a person like Maher does must be seen as a publicity stunt. but it will likely also be treated as proof of the absurdity of a system that allows wealthy people to use their money to promote their views. Maher’s million-dollar check will be seen as a sacrifice on the altar of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened up the floodgates for private groups and individuals to put their money where their mouths are.
But though his intent may be to satirize or to undermine existing law, Maher’s action is not only entirely appropriate; it is proof that the high court’s ruling was correct. If Maher believes Barack Obama should be re-elected, then neither the government nor those of us who disagree with him should have any right to stop him from spending his money in this fashion. Donations to candidates or causes, whether large or small, are a form of political speech. He is as entitled to his right to promote his side as a Republican like Sheldon Adelson or a fellow leftist such as George Soros.
Hindering the right to donate funds to candidates and causes does not prevent the use of money in politics. It just causes it to be funneled into the system in different ways. Moreover, any system that makes such donations onerous merely enhances the power of those who have no such legal restrictions. This includes the news media, whose right to report about the campaign or various issues from a left or right wing slant and to shape public opinion is rightly protected by the Constitution.
Every attempt at campaign finance reform dating back to the initial surge of legislation after the Watergate scandal has only served to worsen the system. Instead of money flowing to candidates and parties, it must now be channeled to independent groups that are even less accountable. Unfortunately, stifling the free speech rights of independent groups is exactly what opponents of the Citizens United decision want to do. But so long as there is a majority on the court willing to defend the rights of citizens to individually or collectively express their views in this manner, such efforts will fail. In a country where flag burning is a constitutionally protected act of free speech, the idea that so-called “good government” types would have the right to prevent Adelson, Soros or even Bill Maher from promoting their views via expenditures is absurd.
I may not consider Bill Maher to be funny and view his political views with even more distaste than his attempts at humor. But I — and anyone else who cares about democracy and free speech — ought to be prepared to defend to the death his right to spend his money on any causes or candidates he likes.