Reclaiming the First Amendment
The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech plays an essential role in making it possible for us, the people, to govern ourselves. It protects the rights of those without influence, money, or connections to criticize those in power and to advocate on equal terms for policies that would improve our lives. It allows us to share information with each other. It provides us the right of self-expression and the right to dissent – essential aspects of freedom. The right to speak freely, to think freely, to assemble freely, to write freely – is a precious one.
In recent decades, however, the power of this right has been diluted and corrupted, not by restricting the kinds of speech that we as a nation treasure, but by expanding protections for so-called “commercial speech” (i.e., the “right” to advertise) and for corporations and individuals to engage in almost unlimited political spending. The Supreme Court, on its own, has transformed the First Amendment from a protection against the powerful into one of the most potent weapons of the powerful, shielding huge swaths of business misconduct and distortion of political influence from regulation. Instead of facilitating the dissemination of information essential to self-government, commercial speech protections are increasingly invoked to enable powerful corporations to hide information from the public. While the courts protect the rights of tobacco companies to deceive young people into a deathly addiction, the rights of mining companies to hide their violations of human rights and environmental norms, and the rights of telemarketers to disturb the privacy of our homes, the sorts of political dissent that the First Amendment was supposed to protect are increasingly becoming criminalized or relegated to “free speech zones” far out of view. Public Good’s ‘Reclaiming the First Amendment’ project seeks to oppose the hostile corporate takeover of the First Amendment, protecting the ability of republican government to regulate business and to compel disclosure of important, often potentially life-saving information, while resisting the weakening of First Amendment protections for speech in opposition to the interests of the powerful.
Protecting Vulnerable Consumers
The nation’s neediest, most vulnerable consumers are regularly victimized by unscrupulous and predatory actors: short-term lenders charging usurious rates and churning loans to create a cycle of debt that prevents borrowers from escaping poverty; debt collectors harassing and deceiving borrowers; negligent credit reporting agencies inaccurately reporting debts and failing to correct or investigate errors when they come to light; scammers of all kinds making inaccurate claims about their merchandise and fighting to keep from having to provide crucial information to potential customers. These practices have devastating impacts: people lose their homes, their cars, or their jobs; they may be forced into bankruptcy; they may find their dreams of a better life for themselves and their children in ruins. Public Good champions robust interpretation of existing consumer protection laws and the creation of new laws to counter ever-evolving predatory practices. We work to make the marketplace less perilous – and more fair – for all.
Defending Innovative Local and State Government Policy Initiatives
When federal action is stymied by corporate influence, as is so often the case, innovative local and state governments may step in to protect public health and foster consumer protection. No matter how sensible the regulation or how acute the need, the affected industry trade group and its ideological allies roll out the same set of boilerplate legal challenges: they claim that the regulation violates the First Amendment (even when it has little or nothing to do with speech); that it exceeds the authority of the agency or government entity that enacted it; that it is preempted by federal or state law; that it is ‘arbitrary and capricious.’ Public Good regularly weighs in against these specious objections, representing public health organizations in support of initiatives requiring disclosure of high sodium content in restaurant foods, warnings of the health dangers of added sugars in advertising for soft drinks, or prohibiting discounts on cigarette sales intended to attract – and addict – young people to smoking. Making it possible for ordinary people to act in their own behalf – to further public health, to foster the public good – lies at the heart of what we do.