A new poll from Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that most respondents oppose the recent Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Just over 70 percent of those polled want to reinstate the unconstitutional restrictions. The questions asked may be found here.
I was not surprised by the result. Polls have long found that substantial majorities support something called “campaign finance reform.” Over two years ago, a poll found that 71 percent of Americans wanted to limit corporate and union spending on campaigns. 62 percent also supported limiting the amount of money a person could give to their own campaign, even though such donations could not involve the possibility of corruption. (This desire to restrict self-funding, by the way, has been patently unconstitutional for over thirty years).
The history of public opinion also should be kept in mind. Fifty years ago, when mass polling started, researchers found that the public both supported and opposed the First Amendment. Surveys found overwhelming support for “the First Amendment” and other abstractions like “the Bill of Rights.” They also frequently detected less than majority support for actual applications of the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Majorities opposed, for example, permitting Communists or other disfavored groups to speak at a local school.
Not much has changed over the years. In 2007, a survey funded by the First Amendment Center reported the following opinions related to First Amendment freedoms:
- Only 56 percent believe that the freedom to worship as one chooses extends to all religious groups;
- 50 percent agree “A public school teacher should be allowed to use the Bible as a factual text in a history or social studies class.”
- 58 percent of Americans would prevent protests during a funeral procession, even on public streets and sidewalks;
- 74 percent would prevent public school students from wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that might offend others;
- majorities thought “the government should be allowed to require television and radio broadcasters to offer an equal allotment of time to conservative and liberal commentators.”
- That same poll also revealed that 66 percent of the public thought “the right to speak freely about whatever you want” was essential. Moreover, 74 percent found “the right to practice the religion of your choice” to be essential.
In the abstract, Americans continue to support First Amendment freedoms. In concrete cases, majorities still often oppose the exercise of such freedoms. Citizens United vindicated the First Amendment in a specific case that a majority does not support. This gulf between principle and application has been and continues to be common among Americans.
These findings suggest two thoughts. Liberals are now saying Citizens United should be undone because majorities oppose the decision. The principle that First Amendment rights should be overturned by majority sentiment may not please liberals in the future. Freedom of religion, in particular, attracts minority support in many concrete applications.
The more important lesson here involves an often ignored truth: the U.S. Constitution does not establish a government through which a majority can do anything it likes. The Bill of Rights marks a limit on political power even if a majority controls the government. (James Madison might have said especially if a majority controls the government). We have a Supreme Court to enforce those limits against government officials and against majorities. In Citizens United, the Court finally did what it should have done: protecting unpopular groups from the heavy hand of the censor. The fact that a majority favored and favors giving unchecked power to the censor matters not at all.