The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 prohibited corporations and labor unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures expressly advocating for the election or defeat of a candidate. It also prohibited “electioneering communications,” which were essentially broadcast, cable, or satellite communications that referred to a candidate for Federal Office and were made within 30 days before a primary election or 60 days before a general election. Corporations or unions could set up a separate segregated fund such as a political action committee to fund such communications. Citizens United was a nonprofit corporation that challenged the law.
In a ruling that directly contradicted previous precedent set in Austin, the Court held that even though corporations are unique entities that receive special benefits, those special benefits do not justify prohibitions on corporate political speech. In other words, after Citizens United corporations and unions were free to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. The Court also went so far as to claim that censoring corporations has “muffled the voice that best represents the most significant segments of the economy” and that by limiting corporate political speech, “the electorate has been deprived of information, knowledge, and opinion vital to its function.”
Ultimately, the Court overruled Austin because “the Government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker’s corporate identify. No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations.”
“The Court has thus rejected the argument that political speech of corporations or other associations should be treated differently under the First Amendment simply because such associations are not ‘natural persons.’”
“On certain topics corporations may possess valuable expertise, leaving them the best equipped to point our errors or fallacies in speech of all sorts, including the speech of candidates and elected officials.
Spot on Quotes (from the dissenting opinion)
“Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it…Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.”
“In a functioning democracy the public must have faith that its representatives owe their positions to the people, not to the corporations with the deepest pockets.”
“It might also be added that corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their ‘personhood’ often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of “We the People” by whom and for our Constitution was established.”
Why The Court Was Wrong
Citizens United will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions of all time. The Spot On Quotes and dissenting opinions in both Bellotti and Citizens United do an excellent job of explaining why restrictions on corporate political speech are not only constitutional, but absolutely necessary. The Court’s fundamental mistake was its failure to treat corporate speech any differently than an individual’s speech, stating in Bellotti that there was no support, “for the proposition that speech that otherwise would be within the protection of the First Amendment loses that protection simply because its source is a corporation…” It goes without saying that when our Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment, they were worried about the rights of John Stevens, not the John Stevens Tobacco Company.
Corporations don’t actually have any opinions. Whenever a corporation “speaks,” the reality is that some individual or individuals affiliated with the corporation are doing the speaking. The speech may be a collective decision made by the board of directors or the brainchild of the social media intern, but a corporation can never say anything that the individual members of the corporation cannot say on their own. Corporations can never add a new idea to that marketplace. They can only artificially magnify the ideas of the individuals who control the corporation, giving those ideas more power than they inherently deserve.
Furthermore, corporations pose a unique threat to our democracy because they are given special benefits such as limited liability and perpetual life in order to increase their economic viability and that such benefits have, “placed them in a position to control vast amounts of economic power which may, if not regulated, dominate not only the economy but also the very heart of our democracy, the electoral process.” As a result of this belief, legislatures all over the country for decades have concluded that “restrictions upon political activity of business corporations are both politically desirable and constitutionally permissible.” The Court’s decisions in Belloitti and Citizens United cut against nearly a hundred years of collective wisdom.
Passing the Restore Democracy Amendment is the best way to undo the damage done by Citizens United and to ensure that our democracy is never held hostage by the Supreme Court again. Please consider making a donation to Citizens Take Action so we can continue working toward that goal.