Free Speech Compromised

By Autumn Labbé-Renault

This article was originally published in The Davis Enterprise Jan. 31, 2010.

In conversation with community media colleagues from a seven-state region last week, a  hot topic was the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Jan. 21 in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission ( Free speech advocates all, we took issue with the decision that equates corporate-financed campaign speech as protected, and wipes out over 100 years of laws designed to curb corporate influence on state and national elections.

In essence, the 5-4 decision says it’s not wrong for corporations to spend large sums of money influencing your perception of candidates for political office. In fact, it’s a good thing. Those poor corporations have had so much trouble getting their message out with those pesky limits on how much they can contribute to candidates’ campaigns. This will level the playing field for them and make our lives so much better. In fact, some are trumpeting this decision as a victory for free speech. In Enron We Trust.

I could rant for days here, slinging all sorts of choice names for our justices. Our First Amendment protects my right to do so. But -- corporations are people? Money is speech? The Supreme Court ruling strikes a blow to democracy and marks such a profound shift in how we think about free speech that it begs a discussion about reasserting the need for a meaningful First Amendment.

I work for an organization rooted in a movement and sprung from a hotbed of activism that expressed discontent with our country’s commercial broadcasting system. Early public access advocates sought to ensure an alternative that embraced the social potential of the then-new cable medium. At its core, public access television is built on the belief that free speech is inalienable human right, and one worth protecting and nurturing. And that it’s available regardless of circumstance or standing.

On Davis, that core of public access television has expanded greatly over the years into a media center that uses a variety of technologies and distribution methods. And yet the salient points are still about access, exposure and free speech.  The Citizens United decision runs counter to all DMA stands for.

On my to-do list this week is continuing planning for our local election coverage here in June. DMA has provided exposure for local candidates and issues for more than 20 years, free of charge. Already we’ve been asked to cover local forums, partner with other local outlets, and air announcements for campaign events. Already I know that there will be folks unhappy with candidates and what they have to say, and they will contact DMA to find out how their voice can be heard amidst the din.

They participate here not because they don’t have other outlets, but because this is a community institution with a long reach. Because our local media are valued and effective means of communicating important issues of the day, here, close to home, close to all that matters most.

I was recently elected to a two-year term on the Western region board of the Alliance for Community Media, choosing to serve when asked because I believe, at my core, that free speech and access issues are central to a healthy democracy.

If we are going to have this discussion—and from the dozens of emails I’ve received from public media and social action advocacy groups in the past few days, I believe we are—then let’s begin it here in Davis. We have unique local resources —scholars, activists, lawyers and yes, one small community media center. If interested, please email me at and let’s get this discussion started.

Autumn Labbé-Renault is executive director of Davis Media Access and writes this column monthly.