If free speech equals money, public is broke

Published 9:42 am Friday, September 11, 2009

Not too long ago, in coal rich West Virginia, Massey Coal decided that justice did not favor its corporate interests.

So Massey spent $3 million dollars disposing of a West Virginia Supreme Court Justice who did not favor their profit interests against the land and citizens of the state.

You see, Massey wanted to run its competition out of business, in this case Harman Mining, destroy the ecology of the state with mountaintop mining and enrich its profits by ignoring state and federal mining regulations.

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But the troublesome Supreme Court kept interrupting the business of doing business. So Massey decided to engage in “free speech.”

The form of free speech it chose was to defame an honorable Justice running for re-appointment to the court.

These judicial election events are often only minimally political and generally not very expensive campaigns. But Massey found a judge, Brent Benjamin, willing to accept their campaign contributions and other help in unseating a sitting judge and placing Benjamin on the court.

West Virginia had never seen a campaign quite like it, and that fall Mr. Benjamin became a Supreme Court justice through the singular largess of his chief sponsor, Massey Coal.

Massey Coal had, not coincidentally, cases coming before the Supreme Court that next session, and, with their new personal judge seated, looked forward to more favorable rulings on what had been a divided court.

Massey must have been pleased when Benjamin did exactly what a purchased judge was expected to do … he ruled in Massey’s behalf on a case that would later be valued at $82 million dollars.

Now, most corporations will see the wisdom of the Massey investment in free speech. They spent $3 million and saved $82 million. Not a bad deal at all, and, with profit as the sole motive of any corporation, well, why not?

And the exercise was remarkably simple. Their ads against the sitting justice did not need to be accurate or truthful, since no such requirement restricts free speech.

Their interests did not have to be for the good of the state of West Virginia or its people, since free speech is not bound by a vested interest in the public good.

And, as a corporation they were not even required to consider the long term damage that they might do to the state through killing competition and the states’ environment … after all they had no interest in West Virginia beyond the profitable extraction of coal.

Now, at that time, some West Virginia voters were appalled at the actions of Massey Coal.

These good citizens wrote letters to the editor, called into talk shows and voted their conscience.

Massey, on the other hand, dominated the TV, radio and print media with its campaign of free speech. The Massey effort was wildly successful, the individuals’ efforts, not so much.

Given this rather amazing exercise in free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the case and decided on a 5-4 vote that perhaps Massey had gone a bit too far. Not in buying a Justice, that was fine, but in that Justice not recusing himself from the Massey case.

Now comes the same U.S. Supreme Court considering rulings that unlimited corporate contributions may soon be free to purchase our national elections as their free speech right, overturning 100 years of restrictions on such abuse of democracy.

Make no mistake, given the opportunity to purchase benefits in their interests, corporations will do what is profitable … after all, they don’t live in your neighborhood, breathe the air, or raise children.

Their free speech is entirely about profit.

Jim Crawford is a contributing columnist for The Tribune and a former educator at Ohio University Southern.