Almost a century ago, back to the time when the modern corporation was created, sprung the Progressive era that flourished with political reforms and social activism. Along with the corporations also came laws that have always prohibited or limited the use of corporate money in elections as a result of Progressive reform’s efforts to eliminate social and political problems, especially corruption. These specific laws have been in place up until January 21, 2010 during the landmark case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, when the Supreme Court ruled with a 5-4 majority that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. As a result, the court also overruled its 1990 case Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates, and partially overruled the 2003 case McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, which upheld the part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions. The case formed when prior to the 2008 primary elections, Citizens United, a nonprofit corporation produced a 90 minute documentary entitled Hillary: The Movie.
The movie conveyed opinions about whether Hillary Clinton, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was fit for the presidency. However, The Movie falls within the definition of “electioneering communications” under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a federal act designed to prevent “big money” from wrongly influencing federal elections-which, as well as other things, prohibits corporate financing of “electioneering communications” and enforces “mandatory disclosure and disclaimer requirements on such communications.” The District Court for the District of Columbia denied Citizens United’s preliminary injunction motion to enjoin the Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) from enforcing these provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act against Citizens United. In the end, the Supreme Courts majority’s ruling not only creates a new wave of campaign cash but also adds to the already significant power of corporations. The reasoning behind the court’s decision is that limits on using corporate funds for campaigns are, according to Justice Kennedy, a “classic example of censorship”.
As a response to the ruling, the court’s theories were being described by the public as money is speech and corporations are people, while President Obama called it “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.” The court has also employed theories as constitutional cover for authority of the electoral system by corporations and the wealthy. The first theory appeared in the 1976 case decision, Buckley v. Valeo, which invalidated some finance-campaign reforms that came out of the Watergate affair. The Court concluded that most limits on campaign expenses, as well as limits on donations, are unconstitutional because money is itself speech and the “quantity of expression”, therefore the amounts of money, cannot be limited. This money-is-speech theory turns out to be a device used exclusively to provide First Amendment protection for all money that businesses and wealthy people want to give, or spend, on campaigns. In addition, spending or donating money to support or facilitate speech is expressive and deserves some protection.
However money simply doesn’t make it into the category of things that are and embody speech, such as books, films, or blogs. Also traditional speech-law analysis would distinguish the speech from the non-speech elements of campaign spending and donation, and allow considerable leeway to regulate. And donating and spending money seem, among the traditional speech-law categories, a “manner of speaking” that the court has said usually can be “reasonably regulated.” The other theory supporting the ruling in Citizens United, the court’s claim that corporations are constitutionally people, comes out of the long history of the expansion of corporations. However, Corporations needed some rights usually reserved for people to function as legal entities, in order to for example, make enforceable contracts and sue or be sued. But despite the common personification of corporations, they still do not and should not have all the rights of people. In Citizens United, Justice Kennedy discusses the business corporations as if they were political associations with political viewpoints and elected leaders.
Except, corporate managers don’t function as representatives or employees of shareholders, who have no shared political views, have no say, and no expectation that their investments will be used for political ends. In wake of the court’s decision, the Citizens United decision will make it harder to achieve reforms opposed by major corporations and change business as well as politics. Therefore, increasing the constitutional rights of corporations beyond their business purposes is really about increasing the rights and power of corporate managers. Where the government has enabled corporate managers to control huge accumulations of wealth without any personal risk, Citizens United invites that arrangement directly into politics and elections. Both of these theories, that money is speech and that corporations are people, have an easier time in courts and with the public, because they are posed as “counters to censorship”. The First Amendment limits only government, but even where it is fully protected, free speech has not been absolute.
For example, how it’s subject to regulation when it undermines basic societal interests and functions, like voting and democracy. Taken as a whole, the conservative court’s First Amendment philosophy has enlarged the speech rights available to wealthy people and corporations while restricting the speech rights available to people of ordinary means. Additionally, the court’s court’s invalidation of campaign finance reforms over the last few decades isn’t about censorship or suppressed speakers or viewpoints. At the case’s core, it is about dominance of the political and electoral system by wealthy people and corporations, and about legitimizing a political and electoral system that is corrupt, money-driven and unrepresentative. Wealthy people and corporate managers shouldn’t dominate politics or have more and better speech rights than the real citizens of the country.