Citizens United: A Masterstroke of Liberty

“The U.S. Supreme Court is good at making everyone unhappy.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is good at making everyone unhappy (a secondary reason for why I love them).

If you are religious right, you must hate Roe v. Wade and maybe even Griswold v. Connecticut.  If you are in the Tea Party, you must abhor the recent Obamacare decision.  If you are a Democrat, Bush v Gore was an act of tyranny.  And for many people, of many political persuasions, Citizens United was just ridiculous. Over 80% of Democrats, 75% of Republicans, and 80% of Independents oppose the ruling.  I mean, come on, corporations aren’t people, right?

Not really, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.

First, we should look at where this case comes from.  The law in question, often referred to as McCain-Feingold for the Republican and Democratic coauthors, gave bureaucrats the power to regulate political speech on the airwaves during the election cycle, especially within a month of election day.  It limited corporate and union spending on electioneering.  This may seem all well and good until it is fully understood and exercised.

Should either of these be illegal: advertising for Michael Moore’s anti-Bush movie Fahrenheit 911 or showing an anti Clinton documentary during the election season?  I would think that most readers would agree with the Supreme Court in saying that no this is free speech and should be legal.

That is what was at question before the Supreme Court in the Citizens United Case.  Now comes the argument “Wait a minute, what about the courts declaring that corporations are people?”

The Supreme Court decided that a long time ago, and it is not quite the same wacky rejection of reality as the infamous pizza is a vegetable incident.  What the Court is saying is not that a corporation is a human or that it may vote and run for president or adopt a child like Jon Stewart has hilariously scoffed.  It simply means that a corporate entity is entitled to those protections of law that are proper to it.  Originally this meant rights to an impartial trial if they are being sued by a flesh and blood person.  It meant that the government could not seize its property or interfere with its actions without the due process of law.  The Court has long affirmed that in these ways a corporation should be treated like a person.  This decision did not declare that corporations were people, but only that their speech was protected by the constitution same as a human person’s speech is.

But you protest! A corporation does not have the right to free speech. People have the right to free speech.  I don’t see much of an argument here and neither did any member of the court but they addressed this nonetheless saying that the citizens have a right to hear that speech whether or not the corporations have a right to make it.  Basically if you wanted to see an anti-Bush or anti-Clinton movie you had the right to do so.

Aww, but this will lead to corporations buying elections.  The court took this very seriously.  None of the justices believed it to be true, but they understood that people would think it was true.  Four of them even voted against part of the ruling because they thought this danger outweighed people’s first amendment rights.  They did not think that elections would be bought, but simply thought that the idea that they were being bought would be dangerous.

After accounting for inflation, the amount of money spent on the presidential general election has increased by 40% since the ruling.  This is an increase from 1.07 billion dollars to 1.8 billion dollars projected this year.  Seems like a smoking gun?  Well if we look closer we can see the real cause.

Barack Obama raised, adjusted for inflation, 800 million dollars in 2008.  John McCain did not raise any money through private donations after accepting the public campaign financing that was part of the McCain Feingold law which Citizen’s United overturned.  If we wish to see the direct effect of Citizens United on fundraising it is best to look at Barack Obama’s money as he is playing by the same rules as he did last time, with the addition of Super Pacs.  Now the increase is from 800 million to 900 million dollars or an 11% increase.  That is significant, no doubt, but it is hardly buying an election.

Last weekend I benefited from the Supreme Court’s wonderful decision in Citizen’s United.  I went to see a movie with strong and clear political implications that would have been illegal for me to see (or at least see advertisements for) before the ruling.  This movie is Atlas Shrugged.  I found it to be an enjoyable if not at all stupendous movie.

Perhaps you will see it and join me in celebrating your free speech that the Supreme Court has secured for you.