The First Amendment leads off the Bill of Rights for a reason: It is the foundation of all our freedoms. The First Amendment can be exploited by the rich and powerful, but it also provides the means to challenge authority and fight the worst abuses in our society. More than two centuries of experience have abundantly demonstrated the value of unfettered speech.
Which is why it should not be tampered with -- certainly not as recklessly as "The People's Rights Amendment" would.
Pushed by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and others, the People's Rights Amendment would deny speech and other constitutional rights to groups of people, limiting such rights to "natural persons" -- individuals, who have far less power to challenge politicians.
"Nothing contained herein shall be construed to limit the people's rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion and such other rights of the people," their amendment to blunt the First Amendment soothingly reassures us.
That may be deceptive, because the amendment takes away the free-speech rights of corporations. Virtually all significant newspapers, magazines and broadcasting outlets in America are organized under a corporate structure, because mass communications tend to require more funding than any one individual has. If individuals -- "the people" -- are the only ones who have constitutional rights, how can we possibly safeguard our free press? Churches, nonprofits and other groups might also be denied free-speech rights.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chief sponsor of the amendment, says this: "My 'People's Rights Amendment' is simple and straightforward. It would make clear that all corporate entities -- for-profit and nonprofit alike -- are not people with constitutional rights. It treats all corporations, including incorporated unions and nonprofits, in the same way: as artificial creatures of the state that we the people govern, not the other way around." But our Founders had a profoundly different philosophy. They did not think that government essentially controls Americans, but that Americans control government, through elections, a free press, constitutional limits on power and a Supreme Court charged with defending those limits.
I think that McGovern, Pelosi and their allies, in pushing this shockingly bad idea, are seeking to blunt what they see as the pernicious effects of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. It protected the rights of corporations and other entities under the First Amendment to engage in political speech, including during election season.
The drawbacks of free speech are apparent on all of our TVs at election time: endless sleazy, negative ads, some sponsored by shadowy groups with unclear motives. Such ads are intended by very wealthy interests to "buy" elections, by swamping the voters with messages they will take to the polls. They are often highly effective.
But trying to eradicate freedom's flaws can end up eradicating freedom itself. Attempts by politicians to regulate or balance political speech are inevitably self-serving, if not dictatorial.
Certainly, in the days of the Founders, united citizens and the rich had almost decisive advantages, in having the means to run presses, disseminate broadsides and pay for whiskey, music and speeches.
Newspapers often represented groups or economic interests, rather than individuals, using slanted, negative and even false speech to influence elections.
Yet the Founders painstakingly protected freedom of the press, recognizing that unregulated political expression is essential to liberty and that the alternative is worse. Once free speech is denied to some, it can be whittled down rapidly for others.
As Chief Justice John Roberts noted in the United decision: "The government urges us in this case to uphold a direct prohibition on political speech. It asks us to embrace a theory of the First Amendment that would allow censorship not only of television and radio broadcasts, but of pamphlets, posters, the Internet and virtually any other medium that corporations and unions might find useful in expressing their views on matters of public concern." As much as we don't want moneyed interests to buy elections, shrinking the First Amendment and curtailing the freedom of the press would be a disastrous response -- for all of us.
Edward Achorn is deputy editorial-pages editor of The Providence Journal. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.