Citizens United, Freedom of Speech, and the Liberation of Listening | Sojourners

Citizens United, Freedom of Speech, and the Liberation of Listening

Listening illustration, Brian A Jackson /
Listening illustration, Brian A Jackson /

The impact of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) is experienced with increased intensity as we approach Election Day. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions have a First Amendment right to independent political expenditures, certain portions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act were reversed.

As a result, the voices surrounding political campaigns have risen in strength and size. And so, while a variety of viewpoints exist on the consequences of Citizens United, most agree that it has dramatically altered the culture of U.S. politics, and has thus sparked major discussion on the reach and limits of freedom of speech. 

Due to the ramifications of Citizens United, we should indeed recognize and critique the role that freedom of speech holds within a mature democracy. However, as we focus on free speech, the time has come to also consider the contributions of its equally important companion, the responsibility to listen. In other words, as we ponder the primary ingredients of a healthy society, the delicate balance between freedom of speech and the responsibility to listen should be held as a critical priority. 

While “speech” is often cited as an opening to share knowledge, wisdom, and beliefs with others (including non-verbal expression), the responsibility to listen is an occasion to pay attention, take notice, and focus upon the knowledge, wisdom, and beliefs of others (and of course, those who are hearing impaired can “listen” through other senses of observation, oftentimes at levels far superior to those with so-called full capacity). And so, as communication is vital to personal relationships and public development, one appreciates speech and listening as equal partners within the dance of interaction, thus the importance of both free speech and responsible listening in daily life. However, while countless courses and workshops are offered on the skills associated with speech, very few people intentionally learn to listen, and the results are staggering. For example, according to The Listening Center:

"About 75 percent [of the time we are supposed to be listening] we are forgetful, pre-occupied, or not paying attention. One of the factors influencing this statistic is that the average attention span for an adult in the United States is 22 seconds ... Immediately after we hear someone speak, we remember about half of what they have said. A few hours later we remember only about 10 to 20 percent."

With these thoughts in mind, while many claim that freedom of speech is the essence of democracy, others would argue that freedom of speech is meaningless unless we also promote a society of active and genuine listeners. In other words, if we promote the freedom of speech and fail to recognize and practice the responsibility to listen, we create an environment where people express their own viewpoints yet are unable (or refuse) to pay attention and consider the diverse views of others. While it may seem to be simple logic, it is worth stating: What good is freedom of speech in a society where no one pays attention? 

While various forces in North American life attempt to imprison our ability to listen, the time has come to set free this crucial aspect of existence, for the consideration offered through genuine listening is essential for the fullness of personal and public transformation. When the balance between speaking and listening is off, it leads to ignorance, division, violence, and an even wider gap between the powerful (those who often do the speaking) and powerless (those whose voices are rarely heard). As a result, while people of faith are typically known as those who speak to and/or at the world, perhaps a true mark of faithfulness is the responsibility to listen with and/or alongside others. In other words, instead of seeking to be understood by others, why not begin with a desire to understand others? 

In addition, rather than waiting for an opportunity to reply, why not listen for the intention of comprehension? Through this shift of perspective, we learn to value our interactions more fully, and one attentive conversation at a time, relationships are valued and strengthened, and the global and local communities around us — as well as the hearts and minds within us — experience a life-giving rejuvenation. As written in Isaiah 55:3, “… listen, that you may live”.

All together, while Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission shaped the nature of free speech in North America, people of faith possess a profound opportunity to set free the importance of listening. 

As people who believe that God listens to prayer, we recognize that listening to one another involves the totality of our attention, learning to understand the other, and thus growing in an ability to better discern and grasp the complexities of our personalities and communities. In a world of countless distractions, competitions for interest, and various temptations to close ourselves off from diverse people and opinions, perhaps there is no greater gift than to give someone your full, undivided, and genuine non-judgmental attention. As Paul Tillich once said, “The first duty of love is to listen," so for us to love our neighbors as Jesus’ proclaimed, perhaps we start not with preaching, but with listening, and thus showing an appreciation for others and a respect for the opportunity to grow through each and every interaction. 

And so, the time is upon us to place more value upon the assortment of daily opportunities for communication, and in doing so, practice the freedom of speech, but also cherish the responsibility to listen, for in such ways our communities will learn to be free, and we can move closer to truly calling ourselves united citizens.


Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).

Listening illustration, Brian A Jackson /