At-Large City Council Elections and the Suppression of Free Speech in Columbus

To run a competitive campaign for a seat on Columbus city council, which consists of 7 members elected citywide (i.e., “at large”), a minimum of $250,000 is necessary. To raise that kind of money, political contributions are needed from big-money donors, who almost always want something in return. Partly because of these relationships between candidates for municipal office and wealthy contributors, almost all academic research on the at-large model of governance finds that it unduly strengthens the influence of well-funded and well-organized constituencies at the expense of regular citizens. It is historically and widely considered a mechanism of control by the power elite of a community.

As one means of controlling Columbus citizens in the 21st century, the all at-large city council and their wealthy supporters have drastically limited free speech in central Ohio and monopolized the mass media with their own views. This has violated the fundamental American principle of a “marketplace of ideas” in which truth is expected to emerge from arguments made to the public by an unrestricted variety of voices. A free flow of information among citizens is also intended to prevent and correct corruption in government by making sure it is publicly exposed. These are reasons the U.S. Supreme Court has said the country has a “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”

Columbus city council, with the approval of their wealthy supporters, has incrementally restricted free speech to the point where criticism of governmental and corporate acts is unlikely to reach a mass audience in central Ohio unless the power elites allow it. They have implemented what Carter G. Woodson said about controlling people: “If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action.”

A first step in controlling thinking in Columbus was to eliminate public-access TV in 2002. For decades in the city, public-access TV had been a free-speech forum where any citizen or community group could speak to a mass audience about issues of the day or problems they were experiencing. It was “the people’s station” as opposed to stations under corporate or governmental control. Citizens regularly used public-access TV to criticize corporations, government, and the news media.

This situation was apparently intolerable to city officials and their rich supporters. So they closed the public-access TV station by claiming there was no money available for it, and continued making the same claim for years afterwards. Their position was revealed to be a sham after city officials convinced Columbus voters to approve a substantial income-tax increase in 2009. Despite the resulting millions of dollars of surplus tax revenue, city officials refused to reinstate public-access TV. Because a lack of funds was obviously not the real reason for their position, their actions supported George Bernard Shaw’s statement that “All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions.”

To also restrict citizens from speaking freely to a mass audience on television, city council changed the policy about broadcasting its meetings on the city’s government channel. City officials continued funding the government channel – on which they regularly appeared – with hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars each year, while claiming that no money was available for citizens to appear on public-access TV. And they decided that council meetings would be televised except for the last part, which is when citizens can speak about any topic, including ones that council had not placed on the meeting agenda. The effect was to allow people to be televised speaking at city council meetings only when they are addressing subjects that city officials allow them to address.

Besides keeping citizens off TV, city officials limited their ability to protest in person. They changed city ordinances to allow protests on the grounds of city hall solely between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. A permit for a protest can be issued for no longer than 72 hours, and no back-to-back permits are allowed. These restrictions, along with similar ones on uses of city parks, prevented Columbus from having the type of Occupy protests that occurred in New York City and many other cities in 2011 and 2012. The protests did much to educate the public about the serious and growing problems of income inequality and corporate control over government in the U.S.

After clamping down on citizens’ protests on television and city property, city officials and their wealthy supporters still had the problem of a variety of print publications reaching a mass audience in Columbus. The only daily newspaper in the city, The Columbus Dispatch, had long been an enthusiastic cheerleader for the mayor and city council. But articles and letters critical of them could still appear in the main alternative weekly newspaper, The Other Paper, in Columbus Monthly magazine, in the Suburban News chain of weekly newspapers, and in a number of other print publications.

The Columbus corporate and governmental power structure came up with a means of dealing with that problem too. After the city’s professional hockey team, in which The Dispatch’s parent company has 10% ownership, ran into financial difficulties, the mayor and city council decided to bail out the team with hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars. Their decision to buy the hockey arena for $42.5 million and spend hundreds of millions more on operating it was made with hardly any public debate or input, even though voters had previously rejected a publicly funded arena five times. City officials argued that the bailout was necessary to save jobs in Columbus.

Less than two weeks after the public announcement that it would receive the bailout, The Dispatch’s parent company spent something like $40 million to buy The Other Paper, Columbus Monthly, Suburban News, and virtually every other print publication serving Columbus and its suburbs. This gave The Dispatch a virtual monopoly on the information that citizens in those areas receive in the local print media. That’s in addition to the TV and radio stations owned by The Dispatch in the Columbus media market. In announcing the acquisition, The Dispatch reported that “Editorial convergence has been a hallmark of Dispatch Printing publications,” thus signaling that the editorial positions of the various publications will become monolithic and in line with The Dispatch’s positions.

The purchase was not only the result of a government bailout of millionaire corporate executives, redolent of the ones that had helped ignite the Occupy protests. It was also an example of what Democratic leaders at the national level, including Al Gore, John Kerry, Howard Dean, and Dennis Kucinich, had been strongly denouncing: the increasing corporatization and consolidation of the news media in recent years. They had pointed out that this process limits the views that citizens can hear and is inconsistent with the idea of government by the people, who need accurate information from a variety of sources to correctly decide governmental issues. These national Democratic leaders called for a greater variety of voices in the media – the opposite of what was happening in Columbus.

Although two local Democratic state senators denounced The Dispatch’s purchase of the publications as causing “mind control” in Columbus (denouncements not carried by The Dispatch), Columbus’s Democratic mayor and city council remained silent about it. They saw no problem with the purchase, the squelching of free speech, and the resulting mind control. They apparently felt that as long as The Dispatch continues supporting their reelections to public office, they are happy to give millions of taxpayers’ dollars to help it buy and control all the other print publications, which previously had the power to run items critical of them.

In sum, Columbus citizens in the last 10 years have been subjected to severe restrictions on their capabilities of speaking and hearing alternative views in the local mass media. For a city with 787,000 residents, and a metropolitan area with 1.8 million people, the ability of citizens to speak and receive a variety of views in the local mass media is essential for there to be a true “marketplace of ideas” as the Founders of the U.S. intended. But Columbus city council and their corporate supporters have done all they can to silence citizens and put blinders on them in regard to the local television and print media.

Although city officials claim that the Internet allows citizens to effectively communicate about public issues, their acts reveal that they know the argument is bogus. If they really believed it, they would close the government channel to save hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, and use the Internet for showing the programs currently carried on that channel. And during their political campaigns, they would not pay for TV time for commercials and would instead rely on the Internet to get their messages to the public. But they clearly view both the government channel and commercial TV as essential for enabling a mass audience to hear their views. They can see that their YouTube posts, for example, get anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand views, whereas television and print media go into the homes of hundreds of thousands of central Ohioans.

The Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government was formed in 2011 to advocate replacing Columbus’s 7-member, all at-large city council with one comprised of 11 members, 7 of whom would be elected from districts and 4 elected at large. Because the 7 district members would not  run citywide, their campaign costs would be lower, making them less dependent on big-money interests. Instead of being aligned with the wealthy, they would be closer to the people and the neighborhoods they represent. As a result, they would be less likely to go along with acts that enrich the corporate interests at the expense of the people and neighborhoods, be more likely to protect the right of citizens to be heard in the mass media and at city council, and be more willing to fight for the ability of citizens to receive information from a variety of independent sources.

Sadly, the coalition’s efforts have resulted in further attempts by city officials to restrict freedom of speech and association. Shortly after the coalition began organizing, persons on its board of trustees received phone calls of displeasure made on behalf of city council. The coalition later received reports that council members were pressuring people – including city employees – to not speak about their support for the coalition’s efforts. These intimidation attempts show once again the current city council’s lack of respect for people’s First Amendment rights. They prefer to coerce and silence citizens behind the scenes instead of using reasoned analysis and open debate in a democratic process of decision-making.

It’s clear that Columbus’s all at-large city council, funded by wealthy special interests, has produced a corporate and government alliance that seeks to maintain power by severely limiting the ability of citizens to use the mass media to discuss public issues, criticize community leaders, and hear alternative views. With freedom of speech being at the foundation of the American system of government, any city that so radically restricts that right cannot be operating in the manner the Founders intended: a government of, by, and for the people. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said: “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.” And as George Washington put it: “The freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

Reducing the influence of big money in campaigns for city council – such as by having a majority of council candidates running in districts instead of citywide – is an important way to restore to Columbus citizens their right to free speech. The alternative will be far worse than mind control. James Madison described it: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

To truly have government by the people, Columbus citizens must arm themselves with the power and knowledge that come only from freedom of speech. An important step toward achieving that goal can be made by modernizing city council to include district representation.

[The website for the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government is at www.columbuscoalition.info.]