Tag: citizens united

Hillary: The Movie

The Supreme Court is soon to hear a case that may drastically roll back campaign finance regulation in the United States:

The case involves “Hillary: The Movie,” a mix of advocacy journalism and political commentary that is a relentlessly negative look at Mrs. Clinton’s character and career. The documentary was made by a conservative advocacy group called Citizens United, which lost a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission seeking permission to distribute it on a video-on-demand service. The film is available on the Internet and on DVD. The issue was that the McCain-Feingold law bans corporate money being used for electioneering.

The right position for the Court is that McCain-Feingold, and all other campaign finance regulation, constitutes unconstitutional limitation on free speech. This means reversing the Court’s 1974 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which held that government limits on campaign spending were unconstitutional but limits on contributions were not.

This distinction is meaningless. If it is OK for a millionaire to spend his own money promoting his own campaign, why can he not give that money to someone else, who might be a more effective advocate for that millionaire’s views, so that this other person can run for office?

More broadly, campaign finance regulation is thought control: it takes a position on whether money should influence political outcomes. Whether or not one agrees, this is only one possible view, and freedom of speech is meant to prevent government from promoting or discouraging particular points of view.

It would be a brave step for Court to reverse Buckley, but it is the right thing to do.

For more background on the case, watch this:

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z

Citizens United and False Consciousness

The Washington Post offers a brief item this morning on the upcoming Citizens United reargument. Robert Barnes writes, “The court is considering whether to overturn its previous decisions that restrict unions and corporations from using their general treasuries to influence election campaigns.”

Actually, a better description of the case would be: the Supreme Court is considering overturning decisions that restrict corporations from using their general treasuries to try to influence election campaigns.

In the most important decision at issue, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the latter organization wished to run an advertisement naming a candidate and supporting his views on economic policy. That ad may have convinced some voters. It may have repelled others. Many voters would not have been moved at all. Whatever influence the ad might have had would have depended on its reception among the voters.

Many people would like to see Austin affirmed. Absent restrictions on corporate issue spending, they say, business would have too much influence on policymaking. But the Supreme Court said in Buckley v. Valeo (and more recently) that restricting speech in the name of equality violates the First Amendment. Others see corporate spending as a kind of corruption and thus subject to the restrictions of campaign finance law. But if Austin falls,  corporations will not be able to give candidates contributions in exchange for favors. They will be able to fund speech independently of campaigns and parties.

In truth, I think many people who support proscribing corporate spending in campaigns believe speech by business is “bad speech” that will make for bad policies. But “prior restraint” of speech clearly violates the First Amendment. Voters, and not censors, are supposed to decide what constitutes “bad speech” and “bad policy.” The fear of corporate speech often reflects a fear that voters will be persuaded by business interests to endorse candidates and policies that are not in the interest of the most voters. But coercion to preclude false consciousness is not compatible with the foundations of a liberal republic, the form of government ordained by the U.S. Constitution.

So the Court may well let corporations and labor unions try to influence elections. Voters will decide whether such organizations actually do influence elections.

Here’s a video produced by Cato’s Caleb Brown and Austin Bragg following the oral argument of Citizens United (and featuring Yours Truly):

The Roberts Revolution to Come

As I mentioned yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many people by ordering a reargument in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Specifically, the Court called for the parties to the case to address the question of overruling Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

The Court decided Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in 1989.  The state of Michigan had prohibited corporations from spending money on electoral speech. In the case in question, the Chamber of Commerce wished to pay for an advertisement backing a candidate for the House of Representatives. The Chamber took this action on its own and not in tandem with the candidate or his party.  Paying for the ad was a felony under Michigan law.

A majority of the Court in 1989 said the Michigan law did not violate the First Amendment. However, the majority had a problem. Previous cases permitted limits on funding electoral speech only in pursuit of a compelling state interest: the prevention of quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. The Court had also ruled that independent spending by groups could not corrupt candidates.

So the majority needed a novel rationale for approving Michigan’s suppression of speech. The majority concluded that speech funded by corporations would distort the democratic process and that the state could prohibits such outlays to prevent harms done by “immense wealth.” In other words, the Austin majority tried to redefine “corruption” as “inequality of influence.” That revision had its own set of problems. Buckely v. Valeo, the Ur-decision in campaign finance, had excluded equality as a compelling state interest justifying regulation of campaign finance.

It is easy to see why the Buckley Court had rejected equality of influence as a reason for restricting political speech. Imagine Congress could prohibit speech that had “too much influence.” But how could that be determined? A majority in Congress would be tempted to suppress speech that threatened the power of that majority.  Paradoxically, the equality rationale would strengthen those who already held power while vitiating representative government. The First Amendment tries to prevent that outcome.

In last year’s decision in Davis v. FEC, the Court again rejected the equality rationale for campaign finance laws.  More and more the Austin decision is looking like bad law.

Justices Kennedy and Scalia, both current members of the Court, wrote dissents in Austin. Justice Thomas has called for Austin to be overruled in other contexts.  Neither Justices Roberts nor Alito is likely to vote to uphold Austin (or the relevant parts of McConnell v. FEC for that matter). But it would seem that either or both of them were unwilling to strike down a precedent without a formal hearing. That hearing will come on September 9 with a decision expected by Thanksgiving.

Almost six years after the Court utterly refused to defend free speech in McConnell v. FEC, the Roberts Court may be ready to vindicate the First Amendment against its accusers in Congress and elsewhere.

Citizens United Case to Be Reargued in Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to decide in its current term the campaign finance case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Instead, the Court issued an order that the case should be reargued. The parties in the reargument should address the question of whether the Court should overrule two of its earlier decisions. In the Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Court held that state legislatures may prohibit spending by businesses on electoral speech. In McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, the Court validated limitations on electoral speech in McCain-Feingold.

The Court could have decided Citizens United on relatively narrow grounds. Instead, it has explicitly drawn into question two of its precedents upholding limitations on political speech. It seems likely that five members of the Court are prepared to overrule both precedents, but at least one justice was unwilling to do so without a formal argument.

We appear to be on the brink of a significant liberalization of campaign finance law.

For more on this important case, see below:

Free Speech v. The Federal Election Commission

The so-called Citizens United case offers the Supreme Court a chance to severely curtail the free speech abuses of the Federal Election Commission. John Samples, Director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government, Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Steve Simpson and George Mason University law professor Allison Hayward weigh in. You can subscribe to Cato’s YouTube videos here and our Weekly Video podcast here.