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The critical problem for contemporary First Amendment theory is the unequal access that wealth can buy. Through its guaranty of free expression, the First Amendment supposedly protects the right of each individual to communicate his or her ideas. But as the Supreme Court recognized a few years ago, "virtually every means of communicating ideas in today's mass society requires the expenditure of money." As we enter an age in which all aspects of communication are dominated by privately owned mass media in general and the modem electronic media in particular, the difficulties grow more obvious and less tractable.
We live in a nation founded on the conceit that everyone ought to have a say in policymaking. The final authority of government is supposed to rest with the people. But that authority cannot be exercised—at least not very well—unless people have available to them all the information they need to make up their minds. Traditionally, the First Amendment has been considered an aid in the public's quest to learn all that it can about the day's vital issues. Were the resources of communication not so scarce, that model might even be accurate. But those resources are scarce. Not every message can reach an audience; not every question can be debated. To select the messages for transmission, we have relied mainly on the market, but the rise of the electronic media has laid bare what should always have been obvious. Since the necessary resources are scarce, those willing and able to pay have the ability to spread their messages. Those who lack the money lack the access to do the same; their principal First Amendment right is to listen.
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