By Mitchel Olszak
CNHI News Service
“It’s not my fault”
That was the subliminal message delivered by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito last week when he commented on the infamous Citizens United decision.
In that 2010 case, a 5-4 majority of the court said government could not restrict the rights of private organizations to engage in political speech. As Alito noted in his address to the Federalist Society, the ruling, which he supported, basically blocked the ability of government to dictate terms of the First Amendment.
All well and good. But in a world full of unintended consequences - unsurprising consequences, in this instance - Citizens United contributed greatly to the tone of this year’s election, an ugly and deceitful contest where roughly $2.5 billion was spent propagandizing the American people.
It was all in the name of free speech.
It’s worth noting that dreary political ads did not originate with Citizens United. This ruling just magnified the misery in the nation’s modern campaign system.
Now that the election is over, I challenge anyone to show me how all of this money — and the “speech” it created — served the greater good. Did it educate the voting populace? Did it enlighten the citizenry? Did it shine light into the dark recesses of the nation’s political structure?
I don’t think so. Instead, it did little more than clear the way as both parties competed in a rhetorical race to the bottom.
Yet, as a supporter of free speech, I don’t blame Alito and his brethren who backed Citizens United — at least not completely. The court, after all, is supposed to rule on what is and is not constitutional. It’s up to the rest of us to fashion a functional society based on the results.
Ideally, the purpose of free speech is to allow people with good ideas to share them. This marketplace of ideas allows a healthy society to advance, grow and readjust when things go off track.
Another function of free speech is to give buffoons the opportunity to tell us who they are. There are plenty of examples - including many of the political ads that ran in recent months.
But a key factor in making proper use of free speech is to challenge nonsense. It’s necessary to expose and discredit foolishness. Otherwise, it earns a legitimacy it does not deserve.
This is where the American people must react when confronted with silly and offensive political campaigns. Tolerating them or ignoring them isn’t enough. If you are disgusted with the current state of campaigning in this country, fight back.
How? Let candidates and their staff know what you think. Condemn the vulgarities of the political system at every turn, regardless of the party encouraging them.
Remember, this is your political system that’s being brutalized. Isn’t it time you took it back?
Mitchel Olszak is a columnist for the New Castle (Pa.) News.