Free Hearing, Not Speech

Control is a key status marker; all else equal those who give orders are above those who take orders.  This seems to be the main reason for democracy’s popularity, not that it makes better decisions but that it raises citizen status, by appearing to put citizens in control.

Consider also that we call it “free speech,” not “free hearing.”  The usual rationale for “free speech,” which seems persuasive, is that in the long run we as a society learn more via an open competition for the best ideas, where anyone can try to persuade us as best they can, and listeners are free to choose what to hear.  Yet that concept would best be called “free hearing” – a freedom to hear and evaluate any case presented, based on any criteria you like (including cost).  It is not a right to make others listen to you.

“Free hearing” would apply not just to hearing from adult citizens in good standing, but also to hearing from children, convicts, corporations, robots, foreigners, or demons.  We wouldn’t argue if corporations have a right to speak, but rather if we have a right to hear what corporations have to say.

But in fact we have “free speech,” a right only enjoyed by adult citizens in good standing, a right we jealously guard, wondering if corporations etc. “deserve” it.  This right seems more a status marker, like the right to vote, than a way to promote idea competition — that whole competition story seems more an ex post rationalization than the real cause for our concern.  Which is why support for “free speech” is often paper thin, fluctuating with the status of proposed speakers.

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  • Rob L

    Well, the country was founded by “We, the people”, not “We, the people and legal entities that exist solely to generate profits”. Corporations have no moral sense beyond the legal requirement to make as much money as possible in the environment they find themselves in, or can create for themselves.

    Even if it was the “right to hear” (which I’m not sure I really get), corporations would- more often than groups of regular citizens- have the ability to drown out everything but what they want you to hear.

    • Chris

      Well, the country was founded by “We, the people”, not “We, the people and websites”. Websites have no moral sense beyond the technical requirement that they serve up html over http.

      The flaw in your reasoning is that corporations and websites are tools of their respective owners. Just as free speech lets me use my website to disseminate my views, free speech also lets me use my corporation to disseminate my views.

      • William Meyer

        A corporation is like a person. A corporation is like a tool. These are metaphors — reasoning by use of analogy.

        Undoubtedly such reasoning was going on at the Supreme Court, but I wonder if such reasoning fails in the face of the complexity of what we’re talking about here. How are we to parse issues of responsibility in cases like Enron and Madoff? Our legal system clearly isn’t up to the task. Coors, I get. Goldman Sachs, I don’t.

      • Rob L

        I’ve certainly seen more adept uses of the mocking rephrase.

        My point is that people don’t actually like competition. This includes people who own corporations and, yes, people who run html-based websites. Given the chance, they will quash would-be competitors before they become a threat. They will back policy that raises the barrier to entry for new competition and policy that enables them to generate higher returns- even to the detriment of the general population. Personally, I don’t think society is best served when the loudest voices belong to groups with such narrow and explicitly self-serving interests. A person who runs a successful enterprise now shouldn’t have more influence than the person who might like to start a successful enterprise in five years, at least to the extent that we can maintain a reasonable balance.

        I’m not saying that there’s a nice neat line to determine which groups should or shouldn’t be able to spend this or that amount of money. I’m not saying existing or recently overturned laws are perfect. But at the very least, I’d say that corporations shouldn’t be able to write our fucking legislation.

    • No, the country was founded by the states, who were themselves corporations.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    The perspective-inversion of “free hearing” is illuminating, but I don’t think that it gets at the disagreement over “corporate speech”. Opponents of corporate speech believe that the corporations will drown out other voices, so that the rest of us aren’t free to hear them.

    I’m not agreeing with this argument. I’m just pointing out that it can be straight-fowardly translated into a “free hearing” argument without losing whatever coherence it has.

  • david

    Virtually all the arguments I’ve read opposing the recent SCOTUS decision argue that large corporations have some non-idea-related advantage in the marketplace of ideas (however imagined; mechanisms proposed vary).

    (for instance – we could suppose that people are generally susceptible to biases induced by financially costly advertising and media blitzes)

    From this point of view, liberally permitting “freedom of hearing” doesn’t necessarily lead to better idea competition.

  • JGWeissman

    Another benifet of “free hearing”: People wouldn’t argue that because they have “free speech” we have to listen to them or respect their expression of their ideas. Although, calling it “free listening” may make this clearer, as in the freedom to listen or to not listen.

  • It is a nice, and instructive, reversal to think of it has ‘free hearing’.

    But if one assumes that what corporations have to offer in the way of speech has no value, then it does not matter which side of the transaction you look at it from, it will still be rated as valueless.

    I agree that status is much in question in the issue of corporate “speech”: a lot of people put themselves in a morally superior position because they are not motivated by “profit” and so not involved in “vulgar commerce”. The more “wicked” corporations are, therefore, the more virtuous they are. Much academic political positioning can be explained in that way, for example (this is not a left/right distinction necessarily: academic supporters of the Nazis in 1930s Germany could happily take the same view). So to imply corporations are sufficiently morally legitimate to have speech rights is to insult the ostentatiously virtuous’ sense of superior status.

    The general point about the categorising of corporations is even more obvious when it becomes clear that people’s concept of ‘corporation’ is typically much narrower than the legal concept. The New York Times is a corporation, after all. So is the ACLU. But what the virtuous mean by ‘corporation’ is “big business engaged in profit”, which is the epitome of threatening evil because it is big, business and profit-oriented.

  • Michael Turner

    Corporations are currently granted limited liability and unlimited lifespan by states — two privileges I’m sure I’ll never enjoy as an individual citizen of a democracy. So I’m perfectly OK with this SCOTUS decision IF it’s followed by one that not only allows people to sue corporations for everything they are worth in civil cases, but also to give them the death penalty for crimes like negligent homicide. Who actually gets fried in the chair? Here’s my idea: one of the corp’s high level executives is picked at random. Think of the ramifications. This could have such a salutary effect on business ethics that we’d no longer need government agencies for the protection of consumer, employees or the natural environment. Being an executive would become more of a status marker, since it would involve taking your own life in your hands to assume such a position. We all admire both responsibility and bravery. Making corporations truly equal under the law would give businessfolk everywhere a chance to show people what they are really made of.

    • Chris

      People have limited liability just like corporations.

      If a corporation owes you but can’t pay, you have no recourse beyond liquidating the corporations assets. If a person owes you but can’t pay, you have even less recourse[1], as you can usually liquidate only a subset of their assets (the judge won’t sell a car they need to get to work).

      [1] The sole exception is child support debts.

    • psychologist

      You are allowed to sue them for everything they are worth. You just can’t sue them for the total worth of every shareholder. Think about it. You own 1 share of GM stock, should you be liable for every penny you have, or just the level of your investment.

    • I have no legal training, but I’m pretty sure negligent homicide is not a capital crime.

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  • I think the main reason for democracy’s popularity is that it reduces corruption by government through rotation of legislators and executive members.

    If Robin were correct and this were about signalling*, people would not regard democratic politicians as an elite group, out of touch from society.

    Similarly, free speech is unpopular not because control implies status, but because many people want to control what other people say on controversial subjects. As Friedman argued, a free speech law is a way to generate common cause among all people who would be threatened by its absence to generate a better outcome.

    The recent US Supreme Court case is actually based on a second, usually less salient, argument against free speech: whether or not the special protections and rights given to a corporation allow it to distort idea competition.

    If Robin can prove that individual citizens think of themselves as being engaged in status competition against corporations, then he may have a case.

    *I know, one of these clauses is redundant. Man with a hammer, etc.

  • David J

    Re: Negligent Homicide – if you keep the basic principle of innocent until proven guilty those who would be sentenced to death would be those responsible – not some random executive. As for speech, the piece of paper that is the corporation cannot talk and such does not really have that freedom; it is the individuals that belong to and/or support the corporation (or organizations in general) that are speaking for their own benefit – just as any person does.

    The salient issue that the public has is not so much the words themselves but the “volume” that is able to be achieved since money allows one to speak louder. But, capitalism rewards success with money and thus those speaking the loudest are the most successful (or, most integral to society at that point in time).

    In general, the “average” individual (Bob) is OK with “Free Speech” since most of his competitors cannot speak much louder and Bob is able to express his opinions as well. Its only when the competition has a much louder voice does Free Speech become unfair. That said, the success of the AFA, ACLU, and like organizations proves that individuals can raise their volume and, in an ironic kind of way, use corporate funds to do so; since many of those who would donate to such community organizations would do so using their paychecks- paychecks funded by the corporations they are trying to silence.

  • Bill

    Here is an example of free speech that you can imagine happening in a Capitol Hill office near you:

    Hello, Congressperson, how’s the campaign going. You know, we can now offer free transportation, willing workers for persons we believe in and support, and we have this really good rate for television commercials on all three networks.

    That’s not why I’m here though. You see, there is this problem we have….

  • Bill

    Oh, and don’t forget, that the Supreme Court’s decision will strike down bans on corporate contributions to Judicial elections.

    There is a thin, and I would argue non-existent line between monetary contributions and bribery.

    We have devalued citizen input and despoiled our aggregation mechanisms.

    We have lost free speech and free elections.

    • pdf23ds

      Yeah, one could even argue that corporate contributions to politicians is bribery by legal definition, since corporate officials have a legal obligation to further the interests of the company, and the only way contributions to a politician could fulfill that goal would be for them to be intended to influence that politician’s policy.

  • Bill

    Free speech in the context of elections is speech between citizens. A corporation is not a citzen, it is not a voter, it is an entity created by the state.

    You should define free speech in the context of the process in which it occurs and with respect to the actors, citizens, whose voice is being aggregated during the election process.

    I have no problem with a wealthy citzen spending on campaigns. But, corporations are not aggregations of citizens…they are aggregations of shareholders, many of whom are foreigners.

    Just as I would not let one of Putin’s favorite oligarchs participate directly in our elections, I would not let one of the oligarch’s US corporations or US incorporated subsidiaries contribute to US elections.

    Use your mind. Do not go buy labels. Think of free speech in the context of communication between citizens on whom they can vote, and then you will not be blinded by labels.

  • Rob, Tyrrell, david, etc., if a listener chooses to hear A and not B, what grounds can B have for complaining that A “drowned out” B? Who is to be the judge of when the listener makes a legitimate choice? It seems to me that the essence of freedom of hearing is that each listener can make his or her own mistakes about who to hear.

    You might make a similar argument as a basis for banning certain kinds of candidates from running for political office, say pretty candidates – one might say pretty candidates “drown out” other candidates. Shall we ban pretty candidates from office then? In contrast, I’d say a freedom to vote would let folks elect corporations, foreigners, convicts or whoever they want to political office.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      I sympathize with your argument. My point is that it was already as valid when it was in terms of “free speech”. You could have said, “Who are we to say that something is wrong if people decide not to speak loudly enough to be heard over the corporations?” In either case, the anti-corporate argument assumes that the listener wasn’t aware that B was saying anything to hear, because A drowned them out.

      While I like the switch to thinking in terms of “free hearing”, it doesn’t really address the issue of corporate speech.

      • Would you similarly endorse government bans on various goods sold by Walmart, on the grounds that they are “drowning” out important goods like food and clothing? After all, the more shelf space is used for any one good, the less space there is for all other goods.

      • Bill


        In your Walmart example, you are confusing the sale of goods with the sale of votes.

        Perhaps there is no difference in your mind, but there is in mine.

      • Tyrrell McAllister

        Would you similarly endorse government bans on various goods sold by Walmart, on the grounds that they are “drowning” out important goods like food and clothing? After all, the more shelf space is used for any one good, the less space there is for all other goods.

        You appear to think that I don’t agree with you about corporate speech. But I do agree with you. I’m just saying that the “free speech/free hearing” inversion doesn’t get at the controversial part.

        Neither does your Walmart example, btw. The corporate speech opponent would point out that there is no practical difficulty at all in finding food and clothes in a Walmart. In contrast, the opponent would claim, it is practically very difficult for a citizen to learn that a given non-corporate speaker even exists to be listened to. (That strikes me as implausible in the age of Google and blogs. But that’s the argument.) If Walmart really made it substantially harder to find food and clothes anywhere, the opponent would probably say, “Sure, in that case Walmart ought to be reigned in by zoning laws or something.”

  • Bill

    Robin, that’s the point:

    When you say: ” I’d say a freedom to vote would let folks elect corporations, foreigners, convicts or whoever they want to political office.”

    Our voting system doesn’t allow you to elect foreigners or corporations to office.

    We can only elect citizens, and only citizens can vote.

    I think you do, however, have to make that argument that foreigners and corporations should be elected to defend the Supreme Court’s decision.

    Think of free speech in the context of elections as communication between citizens. Do not be blinded by labels.

  • Hanson’s status-based argument that free speech is:

    …a right we jealously guard, wondering if corporations etc. “deserve” it.

    is ludicrous. Perhaps you can come up with examples of people making arguments of that form.

    In reality, people are leery of granting full free speech rights to corporations because “rights” apply to humans, and corporations are not human. They are inhuman in two specific ways that cause people alarm at their unlimited access to political speech:
    – they have vastly more resources than the median human individual;
    – they are largely unconstrained by the human moral sense and judgement;

    Humans have a specific moral sense that corporations in general lack. Corporations are structured to be profit-maximizing entities and are unconstrained by human concerns such as empathy. That’s not to say that corporations are immoral; just amoral.

    Status does come into play since both humans and corporations have a need to preserve and maintain their reputations. This sometimes drives corporations towards a human standard of morality.

    • psychologist

      The main difference between blacks and whites is that they aren’t human, and don’t have the human moral sense and judgment. Thats not to say that black are immoral, just amoral.

      Corporations are made of people. Where is your evidence that corporate people are more immoral than regular people? Are labor unions not profit motivated? Should they be allowed speech rights? What about non-profit corporations?

      • Weasel

        Well the first part of your comment isn’t even worth of reply. As for the rest:

        Corporations are made of people.

        So are mobs.

        Where is your evidence that corporate people are more immoral than regular people?

        As individuals most of them are surely not, the possible exception being the normal distribution of sociopaths, and certain MBAs which have been indoctrinated with the idea that they are obligated to maximize profit for the shareholders.

        However, just like people will say things on the internet they would never say face to face, acting through a corporation distances the individual from the moral implications of their actions. And in many cases each individual being responsible for only a portion of the complete action or decision to act mutes their sense of responsibility.

        And don’t give us the standard BS about the shareholders voting against imoral actions or actors within the corporation, as much of that “ownership” is indirect and no one with an actual job has time to keep track of every action of an entity they own shares in, if they are even aware that they do.

        Are labor unions not profit motivated?

        That’s a matter of perspective, and I don’t have a definitive answer. They are, however, operated as more of a direct demoracy, completely unlike a corporation, which could be used to argue in favor of allowing them to spend money on political speech, but see my answer below.

        And no, shareholder voting does not qualify corporations as democratic as the will of individual employees is not considered unless they happen to also be shareholders.

        Should they be allowed speech rights?

        Not beyond the speech rights that their individual members already possess as citizens. That said, if we allow any group of like minded people to pool their resources to purchase political adds, union members should be no different.

        What about non-profit corporations?

        Same as for unions.

        Personally I think the ideal is a system in which ideas compete on their merits, rather than on the size of the bankroll their proponents possess. What exactly such a system would look like I’m not entirely sure. Inequality of access is a reality, and probably can never be entirely elimnated. But allowing corporations free reign to buy political ads is increases inequality of access whereas we should be in my opinion seeking to limit it. If corporate execs want to spend their bonuses on political adds that seek to benefit their company, that’s one thing, but using the corporatations funds directly is a whole new scale of inequality.

      • psychologist

        Weasel, the first part of the comment was an obvious parody of the original post. I was pointing out the obvious similarity to previous claims about who deserves personhood.

      • Weasel

        Weasel, the first part of the comment was an obvious parody of the original post. I was pointing out the obvious similarity to previous claims about who deserves personhood.

        Yeah, I got that, I simply found it tasteless and a hair shy of proverbial usenet invocation of Hitler.

        I think an important point that no one seems to be discussing, is the fact that even if we deny corporations or (an organization for that matter) the right to free speech, or any other right, the members of that organization as individuals do still posess those rights, and can speak on the organizations behalf if they feel so inclined, so it’s not as if said entity deprived of a voice or representation.

  • fburnaby

    Sometimes, I hang out with friends at bars. We’re young, and it’s nice to be out where we can see and be seen by our female cohorts.

    But our typically very lively and interesting conversation always suffers. There are the very welcome distractions of meeting new people, which occur every now and then (but certainly not often), but mostly we’re stuck competing with oppressively loud music, needing to repeat ourselves over and over again to be heard and understood. Whenever something especially obnoxious comes on, we may give up all together, and just go grab another drink. When there’s something serious to talk about, we leave.

    The benefits associated with having corporations around are worth coming out for in the same sort of way. But inviting corporations into our political discourse would be akin to inviting the whole bar and its wonderfully loud sound-system back into our home. It’s in their interests to keep the music loud, getting their message out and droning out the rest. I don’t claim that their intentions are too nefarious — they probably just want us to keep buying drinks, and we benefit from other positive externalities (the chicks) — but in such a loud environment, we don’t get to choose between the music and our own conversation. Your idea about the “right to hear” (which I think is great and I agree with) doesn’t take this intrusion into account. Corporations can be a whole lot louder than people, and will tend to impede our ability to choose just who to hear.

    There are tools to level the playing field, such as the internet, so there’s a chance that we’ll be able to continue talk over the noise. In such a case, opening these rights to corporations could pay off. But it’s a pretty small minority who are capable of using the internet in any meaningful way. This Ludditic majority already observes a pretty low signal to noise ratio (watching TV news for example), but this will only serve to make it worse.

    • David J

      I agree with the whole “drowning out” premise but you are doing the same thing that voters can do – ignore/leave the noisy area and go somewhere else.

      Is restricting “corporate speech” going to increase the ability for non-corporate entities (assuming you distinguish between Microsoft and the ACLU) or individuals to present their message?

      Your comment about the “Ludditic majority” leads be to believe your real issue is with ordinary citizens and not corporations or laws. Kind of like: “If only they knew the truth they’d vote the way I’d vote.” Given this the issue is much more systemic and simply limiting “corporate speech” – which we already were doing – is unlikely to affect any positive change but more likely will just shift us along a to parallel but mostly equal situation.

      • fburnaby

        When I say “ludditic majority”, I’m not really making a value judgement. I’m saying that I can access fairly hi fidelity information with little interfering noise via the internet (Robin doesn’t even run ads along the side of the page — something that unintrusve wouldn’t bother me), whereas others (the luddites) can’t. I’m only saying that many people don’t have a reliable means of informing themselves if they’re consuming only mainstream media. They don’t have to agree with me, but it would nice to think that they ave access to real information via their preferred means of communication, even if I find it ridiculous that they’re happy with it.

        I don’t think there’s any relevant distinction between Microsoft and the ACLU — both are large, organized, have specific interests, and are capable of drowning out individuals. Of course, the ACLU supposedly exists to protect the rights of these individuals and so their interests might be better aligned, but I don’t think this matters. Corporations, unions and nonprofits can all articulate their messages to anyone who wants to hear them already, so I don’t see the point in allowing them to get any louder. I go to the bar for music, I don’t want it coming to me, especially uninvited.

        but you are doing the same thing that voters can do (by ignoring the messages)

        I agree — I can leave right now, and all is fine. But I’m saying that I worry this will be changed by the law in question. In a finite world, I can only run so far to get quiet space. I feel that I (and others) should have the right to stake out my ground and decide what messages enter, when I’m in my own private space, and that doing so might as well be easy. Right now, we’re using a technology (legislation) to keep everyone speaking the same volume. If we remove that, I have to find a new technology (right now, the internet — soon, very intense spam filters).

        There are two ways to keep a room at a comfortable temperature. I can keep the heater on low, and the AC off, or I can turn both on full blast. Both have the same effect, but one is expensive. I believe (and this is subjective) that legislation was actually working to keep all the voices at reasonable levels. Eliminating it will just invite an expensive filtering tech arms race. Why bother inviting that when there’s no real benefit associated with it?

  • David J

    For all this talk about corporations and morals and politics the reality is that US Citizens are the only ones who can elect a person to a US political office; and such an election is to a substantial extent done via majority vote with one vote per adult citizen.

    Yes, it is hard-work and/or expensive to influence those citizens to vote for your cause but whether it is a community organization or a corporation it can be done. As for “foreign influence”, if we truly value freedom then whether the ideas that voters support come from home or abroad should be irrelevant.

    The Supreme Court struck down an existing law and now everyone feels things are going to get worse but my feel is that for those alarmists things are already bad anyway so the laws we did have in place did minimal good in solving the supposed problem. The real question we should ask is whether any law can make things better or whether the system (i.e., The Constitution) itself is the issue – and if so we can put in place a “better” system.

    If the real issue is mass apathy then no amount of legislation is likely make a “majority vote” system work in such a way that makes the concerned minority happy. With mass apathy the only way to make a difference is to scream louder and more often than the other guy – which is basically to project a higher status than the other guy. Yes, the ideas are important as well but given the “mass” part of “mass apathy” there will always be disagreements between all options and as such “feel” will still have a strong influence.

  • Bill

    If you are interested in the issue of foreign corporations contributions through incorporated US subsidiaries that has now been unleashed, here is a post by Greg Palast, the author of the New York Times bestseller The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.” and a reporter for BBC TV:

  • Robert Koslover

    Thank you, Robin, for defending free speech and for adding clarity via your explanation of “free hearing.” From many of the comments above, it seems that your words have in some cases fallen on deaf ears. Ironically, those who seem all-too-willing to suppress the speech of others are themselves only able to be heard because their own freedom of speech remains intact.

    Please keep speaking out!

    First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
    Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out.

    /axiomatic libertarian

    • Bill

      First, the corporations came for the environmentalists, and I did not speak out–because I was not an environmentalist;

      Then, the corporations came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out–because I was not a trade unionist;

      Then, they came for the Libertarians, and I did not speak out–because I was not a Libertarian;

      Then they came for me, a natural person, and there was no one left to speak.

      Poetry is fine. You can use it for whatever argument you want.

      Just remember: Put speech and spending in different spaces in the context of elections. In the context of elections, speech is between citizens and voters.

      • Robert Koslover

        Bill, I submit that a key difference between your concerns and mine is that primarily, I fear authority-hungry governments, while you primarily fear profit-hungry corporations. IMHO, history provides greater justification for my view. I do not wish to sacrifice my own freedom of speech or hearing in exchange for having the Government protect me from possible misinformation spread by corporations. You are far more willing to trust the Government with that kind of power than I am. And from that perspective, the poem that I cited is apt. And, I hope, would give you pause.

      • Bill

        Robert, If you fear authority hungry governments, you should be concerned not about citizens controlling government, but corporations controlling government.

        Governments aren’t persons, that is, they cannot be authority hungry unless citizens direct them to be so.

        Now: ask yourself this question: as between a citizen and a corporation, who has more voice, money and resources: the citizen or the corporation. Write down your answer.

        Now, ask yourself the question, if you believe the government is authority hungry, apply the answer to the previous question as to who will control government.

        Your choice.

      • Robert Koslover

        Bill, you just said “Governments aren’t persons, that is, they cannot be authority hungry unless citizens direct them to be so.”

        With all due respect sir, that’s ridiculous. I agree that citizens must, to a substantial extent, be held responsible for the actions of their governments. But you have just effectively excused the actions of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Kim Jong il, Attila the Hun, etc, as all simply following the directions of their citizenry!

        Have you no fear at all of the potential motives of those who seek power over their fellow man via gaining authority within a government?

      • pdf23ds

        “I fear authority-hungry governments, while you primarily fear profit-hungry corporations. IMHO, history provides greater justification for my view.”

        Might that have something to do with the much longer history of governments than corporations?

  • Popeye

    Can someone explain to me the origin of the word “bribe”?

    Does it predate its synonym “conversation”?

  • Hrm

    The most serious issue as I see it has to do with the amount of resources available to large corps and unions, which means that unlike most individuals, they can yell louder and get their message to more people. I have the right to stand on a street corner, but very few will hear my message. With their resources, they can make sure that they’re heard. It’s not so much that corporate speech is more questionable or untrustworthy (that’s less relevant, IMO), but that there’s serious asymmetry with respect to who can hear us.

    The issue isn’t really free speech; it’s inherent message reach asymmetry.

    • Corporations can only be heard because people choose to hear them. You are not heard on your street corner because people choose not to hear you. Your complain is with the listeners, not the speakers.

      • Bill

        “Corporations can only be heard because people choose to hear them.”

        Run an experiment during the next election cycle. Turn on your TV.

        Read the statement: “Corporations can only be heard because people choose to hear them.”

        And, laugh.

      • Doug S.

        So, is it also true that spammers can only be heard because people choose to hear them?

      • Dre

        I’m sorry, but that’s just not true. If I live in New York and shout on a street corner, no matter how loud I shout or how much people want to hear me, someone in California will never hear me. It is true that street corners are not the most effective way for citizens to communicate, but even if I run a reasonably popular bog, it would take months to reach the same number of people that a single commercial during a national program does.

      • Chris

        Bill, I can’t run your experiment. I don’t own a TV, since I choose not to watch television commercials.

        On the other hand, I do choose to hear what Robin says. That’s why his blog is on my Google homepage.

        How is it that Robin isn’t drowned out by powerful corporations such as the UAW?

      • Robin is correct. It seems that many people feel that watching TV is not a choice, but an inevitability. Why is that?

      • David J

        As I’ve probably said above using different words hearing something and acting upon it are different things. I can hear a corporate commercial about politician X but decide to vote for politician Y instead if I feel X doesn’t deserve my vote. If I know X is corporate friendly and doesn’t represent my interests I should, in fact, try to find a Y that does – even if that means Google or the local chapter of the ACLU (or whatever organizations most closely represent your beliefs).

        The (supposed) reality is that people do not go the “extra mile” to find someone who can better represent their views and thus either abstain from voting altogether or simply pick amongst the loudest voices in the crowd. While the (mostly) two-party system and our current media situation do not really help matters – since almost everything is driven from advertisements – the reality is that no matter how loud corporations yell they only have a hand-full of votes that they directly control.

        If you want to argue about “message reach” then instead of trying to fight human nature (toning down corporate/organizational speech) we should devise ways to let those with less reach obtain more – since then more people become aware of the message instead of simply holding the status quo and reducing the “noise” level.

      • Weasel

        How is it that Robin isn’t drowned out by powerful corporations such as the UAW?

        He is, you are simply part of the small self-selected group that a) has stumbled across him, and b) chooses to listen. From the perspective of the general public, Robin is as audible as cricket in China.

  • But in fact we have “free speech,” a right only enjoyed by adult citizens in good standing, a right we jealously guard, wondering if corporations etc. “deserve” it.

    I question your assertion that only “adults” have free speech, if you mean this to describe the law in the United States. I don’t think legislation can be insulated from First Amendment challenges by creating a prohibition on speech but limiting it to people under 18.

    You might retort that high school students don’t have an unfettered right to free speech in school (e.g. the Supreme Court’s decision in the “bong hits for Jesus” case). While there’s some truth to this, it would prove too much, as many adults don’t have an unfettered right to say whatever they want while working at their jobs. Most constitutional rights are understood to be genuine rights even though they’re subject to numerous exceptions, and free speech is certainly an example of this.

    It’s also incorrect to describe First Amendment rights as enjoyed only by “citizens.” And I don’t know what you mean by “good standing.”

  • Let each and everyone of us incorporate and see how that works out.

    Anyone ever seen a corporation go to prison? If not, then why in the hell do they have the rights of a person?

    • Securities Guy

      Congress shall may make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances, so long as such laws apply to corporations.

      There. I fixed it.

      • Bill

        Securities Guy, before you put away your cross out pen, you might want to read the dissent and use the cross out pen against the decisions and the constitutional precedents the court overruled.

      • Securities Guy

        Bill, the plain meaning of the Constitution takes precedence over judge-made law. Or are you saying Brown v. Board of Education was incorrectly decided? After all, it overruled an 80-year-old precedent.

        Keep in mind the facts of this case: the government banned a political documentary. I repeat, the government banned a political documentary. Anybody who thinks Congress has the power to do this either has never read the Constitution or doesn’t really care what it says.

      • Bill

        @Securities guy, Strange, I guess there wasn’t any need to overrule precedent.

      • Securities Guy

        Bill, you seem to be conflating precedents with the actual Constitution. The two are not the same.

      • Bill

        As a lawyer, I’m happy to talk about the constitution.
        Evidently you are a strict constructionist, perhaps a person who follows the framers intentions. (That is the easiest, non-legal way to approach this without getting into all of the types of speech, precendent, standards governing speech, and, very interestingly, the first decision on this subject…guess when, 1978).
        But, if you are the historical strict constructionist civilian type, just remember, at the time of our founders, there was no such thing as a corporation. Surprised are you. Framers didn’t know about something, the corporation, whose speech rights they apparently granted.
        The definition of person which incorporates “corporation”, by the way, is contained in a statute, 1 USC 1, not in the Constitution. That definition changes from time to time.
        So, as a strict constructionist, and an orininal framer person, go look for the word corporation or understanding of person in the constitution at the time of the writing of the first amas it relates to speech.

      • Bill

        Securities Guy, Here is a website for constitional law profs and con law experts if you are interested:

      • Securities Guy

        Bill, I’m so impressed that you’re a lawyer. I usually let my arguments stand on their own merits rather than pull out my law license to serve as proof that I’m right. If you’d like to get into a pissing match (or wager) over who did better in law school, let me know. I’d be happy to exchange transcripts to settle the bet.

        As for my judicial philosophy, like many legal experts throughout the history of the Republic, I am a legal formalist. Words have meaning and should be interpreted in accordance with their meaning. It’s not a particularly radical concept and certainly not one necessarily associated with laypersons (although it frequently does make the most sense to people who haven’t had their brains turned to mush by reading too many Supreme Court decisions).

        As for the substance of your argument, two points: (1) The prohibition on passing laws abridging the freedom of speech is not qualified by any reference to “persons.” According to your view, Congress has the power to restrict the speech of corporations such as the New York Times, which I think is beyond absurd (and, yes, I’m aware that Stevens tries to distinguish an institutional freedom of press from an individual freedom speech in his dissent, but Scalia completely destroys this argument on page 6 of his dissent). (2) You are plain wrong that there were no corporations at the time the Constitution was written. Stevens’ dissent implicitly admits as much, as it rests its argument on the notion that the Founders were hostile to corporations. For proof that corporations existed at the time the Constitution was written, see the numerous cites to this effect in Scalia’s dissent.

      • Bill

        Sorry I offended you with my now declared status as a lawyer.

        Here is something from a constitutional law website. You do not have to be a lawyer to read it to understand the Supreme Court overruled precedent:

        “In Austin and McConnell, the Supreme Court had ruled that Congress and the States may regulate corporate political expenditures not because of the type of speech or political goals sought by the corporation but because of the very nature of the corporate entity itself. Today, Citizens United sweeps those decisions aside, resting partly on Justice Kennedy’s assertion that “Corporations and other associations, like individuals, contribute to the ‘discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas’ that the First Amendment seeks to foster.” It is an assertion that Justice Stevens, in his dissent, blasts as a “glittering generality.”

        The notion that corporations are equivalent to “other associations” is a fundamental error that would get a law student in trouble. Corporations simply do not exist unless we enact laws that enable people to organize a corporation and provide the rules of the road for using a corporation. We all can start and run businesses without government involvement or permission; we can form non-profits and associations and unions and political parties and all kinds of groups without the government. But we simply cannot form or operate a corporation unless the state enacts a law providing authority to form a corporation, and providing the rules of the road that go with use of the corporate form. Advantages of corporations are a privilege provided by government.”

      • Securities Guy

        I do not deny that the Supreme Court overruled precedent and I’m glad that they did. I feel much less threatened by the prospect that corporations may speak freely than I am by the notion that Congress has the power to ban any type of political speech.

        I suppose we should just agree to disagree on this point. Bygones.

      • Bill, as I said I have no legal training, but your source doesn’t seem to have a great grasp of the law. It distinguishes between for-profit corporations, non-profits and unions regarding state accreditation, but that’s not actually what distinguishes them. The “Citizens United” case was about a non-profit corporation! They are not that uncommon. Furthermore, unions are accredited by the government. I agree with Kevin Carson that this is a bad policy, but that’s how the law currently stand. If that weren’t the case there would be no point in the “card check” law (“Employee Free Choice Act”) being proposed now.

        I think you leapt to assumptions about others adhering to original intent. Rehnquist called himself a “strict constructionist”, but that phrase isn’t well defined and so not many people identify with it. Originalism used to come in expected applications or intent forms, but liberal thinkers successfully discredited them. The dominant form now is “original [public] meaning/understanding”, which is also sometimes called “textualism”. This isn’t a radically new position either, Lysander Spooner advocated it in his “The Unconstitutionality of Slavery”. A good explanation of the different versions of originalism (and non-originalism), combined with an argument for which are supported by the Constitution, is in Chris Green’s paper on constitutional indexicals. I actually link to it in the excerpt gwern quoted below, though you’d have to click the link to my post in order to see it.

        Securities Guy, I actually do think Brown v Board was incorrectly decided. I’m not completely alone on that, a number of legal scholars have described it as being “the right result for the wrong reasons”. I believe Scalia has said that it’s simply too important to overturn even if it was wrongly decided. Thomas is less talkative, but commentators have described him as being the only one who would possibly be willing to overturn it. That is because he is a more thoroughgoing originalist/textualist than Scalia, as Scalia himself has admitted.

      • On second thought, Bill, I think was overly hasty in reading your excerpt. We can indeed form non-corporate non-profits, just as we can form non-corporate for-profit businesses. We can form political parties without requiring permission from the government, but any third-party proponent will tell you that the law gives significant privileges to the major parties. Simply forming a party is not sufficient to get it on the ballot, you need the government to give the okay for that. And of course non-profits and for-profits have to get the government’s permission for all sorts of things. Unions are given some special privileges by the government, and as a result require accreditation which can be withdrawn for various reasons. There are some who view corporations as creations of the state restricted in their function to public interests, but that is a rather marginal view these days. It is now seen as a nexus of contracts, and because they generally don’t receive the monopolistic privileges characteristic of the old days of chartered corporations, corporate charters are normally granted when requested. The difference is something like that of “shall issue” vs “may issue” concealed carry statutes.

      • Securities Guy

        TGGP: I do not disagree with you on your assessment of the reasoning that underlies Brown v. Board of Education. I raised it as a rhetorical point because it was a case that overruled long-standing precedent and is generally regarded favorably.

      • @ bill at the time of our founders, there was no such thing as a corporation. Surprised are you. Framers didn’t know about something, the corporation, whose speech rights they apparently granted.

        Main articles: History of corporations and List of oldest companies

        [Very long comment cut as we have a 500 word limit here. Just give a link instead of long quotes. RH]

      • David J

        How exactly would one go about forming a non-profit without getting thrown into jail for tax-evasion? Non-Profits do make an actual profit but our tax code provides them special exemptions if they follow certain rules about how they operate.

        Same go for unions; yes employees can coordinate their actions and act as a group but without the government protects afforded to unions specifically they would still be as vulnerable to employer “retaliation” as individual employees acting alone. The fact that we have such laws supports this.

        The whole point of having these “entities” is to garner special treatment for the group of individuals different than that afforded to lone individuals – and such preferential treatment is almost always legal in nature. But, such protections should be additive – adding extra protections that would not normally be present; not (subtractive?) – removing existing protections the individuals already have.

      • Collin237

        You’ve inadvertently shown a very important way that corporations are not people. People are assembled only when they meet each other. Corporations, however, are always assembled even when they’re alone. So should corporations have the right to peacefully assemble?

        There isn’t an answer, and it’s easy to where the question is broken: the word “right”. Corporations should rather have the duty to peacefully assemble, because that would actually be a clever way of ending the military’s lack of accountability afforded by corporate sponsorship.

        Once the focus is shifted from “right” to “duty”, fixing the problems with corporations is no longer an enigma. But clearly the duties that should thus be given to corporations do not and can not apply to people.

    • David J

      Corporations are composed of parts and those parts can and do go to prison. Thus, by your logic, those parts can be called “people” and thus have the same rights as people – including the right to free speech.

      We also tax corporations and by the “no taxation without representation” standard they should be able to participate in politics on that basis alone.

      Corporations can also die.

      In effect, corporations are so human-like (to be expected since they are a human creation run by and for humans) that to treat them differently than other humans is discriminatory.

      • Collin237

        The only reason the idea of a corporate essence seems reasonable is by analogy to the essence of an insect hive. But does an insect hive have an essence?

        Obviously, an insect hive has purposeful behavior. But purpose can also come from a center of command. The queen of an insect hive would seem, by today’s thought, to be a commander. So why doesn’t theory recognize her as such?

        Consider the thought style at the time when theories of animal behavior were established. In those days, almost all men had unresolved male-chauvinism issues, and almost all scientists were men. An insect queen is larger than all the other insects, stays in the same place all the time, and lays all the eggs. The scientists saw these three characteristics as dog whistles, fell out of science mode, and concluded irrationally that the authority of the queen is an illusion. So they invented, without any evidence, another authority, the “hive mind”, essentially a gaseous king.

        Today, thanks to the rise of Liberalism, we know better. We also know far more about a common feature of all social insects — antennas — since we now routinely build antennas of our own. It is now clear that the queen is broadcasting commands, the other insects are receiving and obeying them, and there is nothing else going on — no more room to postulate an essence.

        So just as we now know that an insect hive is not an insect, we can infer that a person hive — or corporation — is not a person. Rather, a corporation is simply a hierarchical network with a queen, better known as a CEO.

        Corporate tax is simply a shelter that allows CEOs to remain ultra-rich by not paying their fair share of personal tax. Let the CEOs foot the whole bill and get drained down to a reasonable level of wealth, and then they can be represented for what they are — business owners.

  • Robert Bloomfield

    I can see I am late to the game (comment 51?), but perhaps Robin will address this question in his next post: Robin, you claim that support for democracy is based on status or signaling, rather than on more substantive grounds (such as the actual allocation of power that can be preferred for its own sake). On what empirical grounds can you distinguish between the alternatives and defend your assertion? I admit, I don’t find the claim that we say “free speech” instead of “free hearing” very compelling evidence.

    Would this be a promising direction for a laboratory study, in which the experimenter manipulates the salience of status and allows subjects to choose among governance alternatives? Or perhaps a cross-cultural study that would identify variations in preferred forms of government explained by differences in attention to status (or forms of it).

  • John 4

    Sorry I’m coming late from MR…I posted this there but no answer. I need help understanding “free hearing”. We don’t – I take it this is obvious – have a right to hear what other people have to say. I’d like to know many people’s opinions on many things, but I have no right to hear those opinions. Not even if those people would happily share them with me (if the circumstances permitted). So, the only plausible conception of free hearing that I can think of is a negative conception – the right to free hearing is a right not to have one’s hearing interfered with, not a positive right to hear anything in particular.

    If this is right, free speech and free hearing are both forms of liberty – we have a right to do things like speak or hear as long as we are not infringing on the rights of others. (If I build a super sonic amplifier I would not have a right to use it to hear all my neighbors conversations.) I do think we have a right to free hearing, but it seems like a pretty banal right – free hearing without free speech, as far as I can see, would be pretty much worthless: I could have a right to hear whatever was (publicly) said, but if free speech is not protected that won’t do me much good. Finally, since hearing is in many cases involuntary, it would make no sense to have laws about what we are allowed to hear (at least with our unaided senses).

    I would be obliged if someone would point out to me what I’m missing here.

    • David J

      Maybe think of “Free Hearing” as “Freedom to act as we wish upon what we have heard”.

      Another way of phrasing it is “Free Soap Boxes For All” – the right for everyone to have access to the distribution mechanisms through which ideas spread. Access to those channels bestows status upon those who have it.

      You are correct in that for “Free Hearing/SoapBoxs” to work you need “Free Speech” but as our society has shown you can give people the freedom to speak and severely limit their access to a SoapBox and stifle them almost as much as if you limited their freedom of speech. Where I take issue is instead of trying to get them access to the soapbox we instead want to kick the soapbox out from under others.

      I guess the real question is whether, after taking away the soapbox from the corporations are we then able to give (provide access) the soapbox to “representatives for the people”?

      • Collin237

        Some soapboxes are simply against the public interest. For example, a soapbox presenting a fake cure for a life-threatening disease, and thus increasing the death toll by luring the inflicted away from real medical care.

  • gwern

    > “Debates had been going on in various comment sections before I read any of the decision. I argued at most length about the issue in response to Crispin Sartwell. I made shorter comments to John Robb, IOZ and La Rana. I didn’t bother in the original thread at Overcoming Bias because the argument had already gone in all sorts of directions I didn’t feel like engaging in. I’m pretty sure Robin didn’t read the decision, or he’d know that Stevens’ dissent actually makes use of the “right of listeners/hearing” logic. Where that fails is that we are ruled by law rather than intent: everyone in the country could sign a petition saying they had no interest in hearing what Carrot Top has to say about politics, and yet Carrot Top would still have the first amendment right to speak about politics. Similarly, legislators could pass legislation because they assume it won’t actually be enforced, but legally speaking it is still enforceable.”

  • Garrett

    I think sometimes you try too hard to be contrarian, Hanson.

  • I came to essentially this same conclusion in 2001, back before I had a blog. (I then posted my thoughts on the Freedom to Hear as a Personal FAQ, or PFAQ, containing answers to questions of my own choosing.) I later re-framed and tightened the message in The Freedom to Hear, a post on my blog at Open Salon. I think it’s great to see others coming to this analysis, too, whether by reading me or by independent thought. Having this transform available allows one to view situations from another angle and gain important insights as to who is benefiting and who is losing in a speech context. I mention the pointers to my own work by way of cross-reference because I have additional examples that you don’t offer here, which may enhance your or your readers’ understanding of how the analysis can be done. And it applies to Corporate Speech, as in the Citizens United case, I think the core issue I would raise is whether a sufficient flood of dollars by corporations can drown out opposing messages (as in a denial of service attack).

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  • John Doe

    I’ve thought about this for a while and have finally made my call on this and I will be the first person to openly say this out loud.

    I. Hate. Free speech.

    Democracy and free speech are both overrated and I’d personally be happier without them.

    Among many other concepts and all aside from their incessant glorifying, these two both needlessly promote a cycle of collective competition of popularity and productivity and demote personal independence and responsibility. Indeed, they are responsible for what is presently our broken, brutal, and bloody two party system of Democrat vs. Republican and Liberal vs. Conservative. I find the notion that humans are required to duel their ideas under the score of dominance is ironically no different than the nationalism of the Britain of yore. Pardon my revisionism, if it be judged so, but instead of as this brilliant beacon of universal freedom, was America not founded on solely as a nation that separated from its dominant collective so that its people could rule themselves?

    That am I’m also forced to recognize people that I normally would not; I have to allow people to get in my personal business, for instance.

    For what is popular, I can also say the same for what is unpopular. I must reemphasize that we never needed to submit our lifestyles or ideas for nobody’s sake except our own private one. We made them for ourselves and ourselves alone and if we liked them, then we liked them, and if we didn’t then we simply changed them. Just because something is considered popular or unpopular does not make them any more or less significant except perceptively in the culture that they form in.

    Even originality is unoriginal.

    In the end, it does not come down to which is popular or not, and all of our ideas can be considered arbitrary to the outside if found undesirable. Instead of merely serving the ego, it ultimately comes down to simply living our lives to our choosing. If all of this be deemed “Un-American,” “unpatriotic,” or even “unpopular,” in which case I feel that my point has been proven, then go and deem it so.

    So yeah, don’t give me those free country and Orwell lines of crap.

    Anyway, I think that once you think about it, free speech has nothing to do with anything ever.

    Did we ever really need it for anything else except to criticize to government?

    I hate how everyone romanticizes how dialogue and compromise can solve everything an the notion is more sinister than idealistic. If you demand or require that two opposing forces, let us say me and you know what for example, become buddies, you deny those people their autonomy and freedom of association and ultimately achieve social conformity. You will have forced people to give up their being of themselves and their ability to fight their own battles. Then again, I once said that if one side is hellbent on keeping another down, then that side doesn’t deserve to be themselves.

    This guy here considers it cultural fetishizing. … logue.html

    • Collin237

      If you hate your free speech, there are many people who would be glad to get rid of it for you. ROTFL

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