Citizens United v. FEC: Freedom of Speech v. Unfair Influence

The Supreme Court last week struck down some 70 years of legal precedent concerning the ability of corporations to spend their discretionary money in support of a political candidate within a certain time frame of an election. Many liberals are beside themselves with concern over this decision saying that, to paraphrase Senator Chuck Schumer, the winners of the upcoming election will not be Democrats and will not be Republicans but will be corporations.

I read enough of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion to believe that the opposition to this opinion is much ado about nothing and in fact represents an odd inconsistency with liberal belief. The opinion comes down on the side of freedom of speech (the First Amendment), which we liberals hold almost more dear than anything else in our platform.

But first, we need a reality check. Before this opinion was issued by the Court, Congress was already bought and sold by lobbyists and big business. Who are we fooling here? On one level the Court’s decision simply makes the law reflect reality.

Even if we get beyond the cold reality of how things really work, the opinion stands on its own logically. When a company contributes to a political campaign, there is an implicit quid-pro-quo relationship established. The candidate has solicited the donation and the company has made the donation. This establishes a potential obligation between one party and the other. That is why there are limits to campaign contributions. This was not changed by the Citizens United decision.

However when a company freely spends its money in support of a candidate via commercials, films, etc. when the candidate has not solicited such support, no quid-pro-quo relationship is established. In this case, the company (for profit or non-profit corporation) is freely exercising its Constitutionally guaranteed right to express its opinion. This is the very essence of freedom of speech. There are those who say that corporations are not “people” and should not enjoy first amendment protection. I argue that corporations represent the will of people, either their board of directors, their shareholders or their executive team. Corporations are not aliens. They are human inventions influenced by the humans who run them.

Again, we need to step back a moment to the reality prior to this ruling. It has been correctly noted by some commentators that General Electric owns MSNBC and therefore pays the salaries of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, both of whom reserve the right to express their opinion about a candidate right up to the moment that he or she wins or loses the race. In fact, in the case of Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Keith Olbermann went right on expressing his opinion after Brown won the race. By the current liberal sky-is-falling reasoning, didn’t General Electric have unfair influence prior to this ruling?

While I understand the concerns about corporations gaining even more influence via this decision, I think that risk pales in comparison to the slippery slope that we find ourselves on when we restrict the speech of one entity whom we distrust. Who gets censored next? This was the inevitable conclusion that the Court had to make.  When you restrict the speech of any of us, you risk restricting the speech of us all and you compromise the most fundamental principle upon which our country is built.

Rutherford Political Blogger Alliance