The United States Supreme Court, in 2010, decided a case of great societal significance and import. The name of the case was Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commissions. The United States Supreme Court here decided that the former law that prohibited corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for political speech was incorrect.
The facts of the case were that in January of 2008, Citizens United, a non-profit corporation, released a documentary critical of then Senator Hilary Clinton, a candidate for the presidential nomination of her party. Citizens United produced television ads to run on broadcast and cable television. Concerned with possible civil and criminal penalties for violating 2 USC Sec.441-b that prohibited corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make expenditures for speech that advocated election or defeat of a candidate, the group sought declaratory and injunctive relief arguing that Section 441-b was unconstitutional as applied to Hillary. The District Court denied Citizens United’s request for a preliminary injunction and granted the Federal Elections Commission summary judgment. The United States Supreme Court made a watershed decision in this case. The Court overruled the prohibition on corporate expenditure in election campaigns and concluded that Section 441-b’s prohibition on corporate independent expenditures was an outright ban on free speech. Thus, the Court overruled the former decision on the law in this case, prohibiting such expenditures in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission. In that case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that political speech may be banned based on the speaker’s corporate identity. The Supreme Court concluded in this case that the government may not under the First Amendment suppress political speech or corporate expenditure on the basis of the speaker’s corporate identity or bar electioneering under the former law in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The Supreme Court also concluded that the disclosure provision of the bipartisan campaign reform act in 2002 did not violate the First Amendment as applied to the non-profit corporation.
The exact details in this case are readily available. In this essay, however, I point to what I think is the incorrect nature of this decision. The Court’s conclusion that a corporation is a person and has a right to free speech expression and unlimited campaign expenditures I find disturbing. It is an unfortunate fact but a real fact that in modern election campaigns, candidates will spend huge sums of money through the media to win the election. Corporations have access to millions and millions of dollars. Although some wealthy individuals do have the ability to generate and spend these large sums of money, corporate America has overwhelming control of the money and assets of this country and perhaps the world. If the business and corporate sectors are allowed to spend unlimited sums of money, their power becomes overwhelming. If corporate America attains the status of the individual voter then, in a sense, the concept of the political franchise of the equal voting right accorded to every citizen is virtually emasculated and destroyed. This is because money possessed by the corporate sector is permitted to swing and win elections through their vast financial resources the actual votes no longer count.
If money is made the benchmark and criterion of winning an election and corporate money swings and wins that election, then our democratic system is in grave danger. This decision has grave consequences. It allows the election to be determined by who has the most money to spend. It allows an election to be clouded and permits the media and expenditures in the media to cloud the issues. I would not say that heavy corporate expenditures are inherently wrong but I do say that money becomes the determining factor in the election rather than the personal ability, knowledge, and quality of the particular candidate. Media advertisement financed by corporate America allowed under this decision means the election is no longer fair; it becomes inherently undemocratic and is decided not by some true evaluation of a candidate but is swung and made confused by allowing these heavy expenditures. A democracy can exist not by sloganeering repetition and commercials but by actual evaluation of the candidate and the issues, where the true statesman is able to offer solutions and can be found. In this reign of commercial speech financed by corporate America, the election becomes a ground where wholesale verbal and image bombarding and repetition not only may determine the outcome of the election or any election, but effectively serve to hide and obfuscate any real truth and honest communication.
Let me end with this little note. In our consumer and greed-based society, money has been made the benchmark and goal. There is nothing wrong with materialism and the acquisition of wealth and goods, per se. What is wrong is to make it a thought or philosophical system. When this happens, when the purchase of a new car or a new pair of shoes becomes the goal, we all fall short and we all become and our system becomes full of intellectual dysfunction. Jesus said the poor and poor in spirit were blessed. We would do to heed his words and note that in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the poor man was rewarded for his sufferings and the rich man who was indifferent to the poor man’s sufferings in his life was fated for condemnation.
1. 558 US 310, 130 Supreme court 876, 175 Lawyers Edition 753 (2010)
2. 540US 93, 124 Supreme Court 619, 157 Lawyers Ed. 2d 491
3. 494 US 652, 110 Supreme Court 1391, 108 Lawyers Edition 2d 652