Court extends free speech rights to corporations

In a sharply-divided 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act last week, setting the stage for a deluge of corporate spending in the 2010 mid-term elections. This landmark decision relaxes restrictions on corporations from funneling cash into political campaigns and extends rights once reserved for individuals to corporations.

The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, originally concerned a narrowly tailored issue: Could the FEC bar a corporation from distributing a film critical of Hilary Clinton during the 2008 presidential primary? If the court had addressed this issue, Thursday’s ruling would have been largely ignored. However, due to a surprising move last June, the court requested a second argument to answer the far broader question: Does Congress have the power to restrict corporate speech in political campaigns?

According to last week’s ruling, the answer is no. However, the majority was forced to subvert some fundamental assertions about rights and liberties to arrive at this conclusion.

Ruling for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”

This is true, but corporations are nebulas associations of money as much as they are associations of individuals. Kennedy is attempting to cloak a what is strictly a campaign finance issue in austere free speech rhetoric.

Rights are political constructs. They are socially agreed upon assertions that display what a society values.  Based on the ruling in Citizens United, Americans apparently value money more than free and open elections. Rights and liberties are grounded in individuals, not corporations. Corporations are not imprisoned because they were denied due process. Corporations are not persecuted for their religious beliefs. Corporations are not silenced at the voting booth because of their skin color.

Ever since the court’s 1886 ruling in Santa Clara Co. v. Southern Pacific Railroad, corporations have been granted the same equal-protection rights as individuals. Rather than be subjected to restrictions for being nothing more than a piece of paper, corporations gained better rights than many individuals.

Ignoring 60 years of federal laws that reigned in corporate influence on political campaigns, the court’s conservative majority has opened the federal election process to a new era of graft and corruption and delivered a substantial blow to the democratic process. Two court precedents — Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate expenditures that supported or opposed candidates, and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission — were overruled, proving “judicial activism” should not be synonymous with “liberal” and that Chief Justice John Roberts is just as prone to radical doctrinal shifts as any other justice.

Before Thursday’s ruling, there was no dearth of venues for corporations to promote their interests. Whether it was through political action committees or contributions, corporations could influence an election, but  now the democratic process has been reduced to an auction. The McCain-Feingold law merely prevented corporations from broadcasting  “electioneering communications” during the 30 days before a presidential primary and the 60 days before the general election – certainly a reasonable restraint on free speech even if money is equivalent to human speech.

President Barack Obama described the decision as “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”  Once again, much like Justice Kennedy, Obama is misrepresenting the issue, but he is not far off. While the decision does not grant corporations the right to donate money directly to candidates and political parties, they are now able to create their own campaigns to counter a candidate. Coming at a time when the Obama administration is trying to rewrite the regulatory framework of the banking industry, the threat now exists for corporations and labor unions to drown out the voice of the people by blackmailing legislators.

Watching the Supreme Court — the supposed guardian of our rights and liberties — disregard stare decisis for the sake of corporations proves the justices are not neutral arbiters. They are as prone to political bias as any human being and willing to place the future of free and open elections in peril.

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