Congress Goes After Citizens United

Snowstorm notwithstanding, Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen introduced legislation in response to the Citizens United decision. A summary of their effort can be found here.

Some parts of the proposal are simply pandering to anti-foreign bias (corporations with shareholding by foreigners are prohibited from funding speech) and anger about bailouts (firms receiving TARP money are banned from funding speech). Government contractors are also prohibited from independent spending to support speech. We shall see whether these prohibitions hold up in court. The censorship of government contractors and TARP recipients will likely prove to be an unconstitutional condition upon receiving government benefits.

Despite Citizens United, Congress will try to suppress speech by other organizations.  Schumer-Van Hollen relies on aggressive disclosure requirements to deter speech they do not like. CEOs of corporations who fund ads will be required to say they “approve of the message” on camera at the end of the ad.

Citizens United upheld disclosure requirements, but it also vindicated freedom of speech. The two commitments may prove incompatible if Schumer-Van Hollen is enacted. This law uses aggressive mandated disclosure to discourage speech. We know that members of Congress believe this tactic could work. Sen. John McCain said during the debate over McCain-Feingold that forcing disclosure of who funded an ad will mean fewer such ads will appear. In other words: more disclosure, less speech. Just after Citizens United, law professor Laurence Tribe called for mandating aggressive disclosure requirements in order to “cut down to size” the impact of disfavored speech.

During the next few months the critics of Citizens United may well show beyond all doubt that the purpose of its disclosure requirements are to silence political speech. In evaluating the constitutionality of Shumer-Van Hollen, the Court could hardly overlook such professions of the purpose behind its disclosure requirements.

One other part of Schumer-Van Hollen is probably unconstitutional. They would require any broadcaster that runs ads funded by corporations to sell cheap airtime to candidates and parties. Several similar attempts to equalize speech through subsidies have recently been struck down by the Court. This effort would share a similar fate.

All in all, Schumer-Van Hollen is a predictable effort to deter speech by disfavored groups. Congress is reduced to attacking foreigners and bailout recipients while hoping that mandated disclosure will discourage speech.  The proposal law suggests a comforting conclusion. For most Americans, Citizens United deprived Congress of its broadest and most effective tools of censoring political speech.