Tag: free speech

Citizen United’s Concept of the U.S. Constitution

The Citizens United decision and the talk that has followed imply two different and incompatible ideas of the Constitution.

The majority in Citizens United believe that the U.S. Constitution establishes a government of limited and defined powers. They asked: “Does the Constitution give government the power to prohibit speech by corporations (and others)?” The First Amendment indicated the government did not have that power.

The critics of the Citizens United decision assume the Constitution created a government of  plenary powers with limited exceptions. They recognize that free speech for individuals is one such exception. But that exception is limited to natural people, not legal constructs. If there is no exception to the plenary power of government, the critics conclude, then there is no right to speak. Congress may prohibit speech by corporations (and others).

The Citizens United decision depends on an idea of the Constitution that forces  government to justify its powers to citizens. The critics of the decision assume an idea of the Constitution that forces citizens to justify their rights to the government. Absent such justifications, the government has plenary power over speech and much else.

Which concept of the Constitution do you find most appealing?

Secretary Clinton on Free Speech

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a major speech on Internet freedom today. The text has been posted on the State Department web site, and Adam Thierer has a review of it up on the TechLiberationFront blog.

As a signal to other governments, it was a good speech. It placed the United States government on the side of freedom movements around the world and extolled how technology empowers them.

From a domestic perspective, it was nothing special. References to the liberating power of the Internet were carefully caveated with cautions about online dangers that could justify government intrusion on the Internet. Secretary Clinton was particularly equivocal about online anonymity.

The irony, of course, was provided by the breaking news of the day: the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, discussed by my colleagues here, here, and here, as well as in this podcast. The case dealt with speech critical of Secretary Clinton produced by a corporation during her candidacy for the presidency. It reversed precedents allowing a ban on corporate and union speech about political candidates.

The Court said in Citizens United:

Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people. The right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak, and to use information to reach consensus is a precondition to enlightened self-government and a necessary means to protect it.

The fact that speech issues from people organized as corporations or unions makes no difference.

In her speech, Secretary Clinton echoed similar themes. “Countries that censor news and information must recognize that from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech.” Perhaps she was trying to distinguish between economic consequences of speech and other consequences, but later she said:

[C]ensorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. And in America, American companies need to make a principled stand. This needs to be part of our national brand. I’m confident that consumers worldwide will reward companies that follow those principles.

The Citizens United case is the product of a company taking such a stand, though not in the way Secretary Clinton meant it.

Later in the day, the White House issued the following statement about the Citizens United free speech case:

With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is 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. This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington–while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates. That’s why I am instructing my Administration to get to work immediately with Congress on this issue. We are going to talk with bipartisan Congressional leaders to develop a forceful response to this decision. The public interest requires nothing less.

So much for free speech.

Supreme Court Ruling on Hillary Movie Heralds Freer Speech for All of Us

Today the Supreme Court struck a major blow for free speech by correctly holding that government cannot try to “level the political playing field” by banning corporations from making independent campaign expenditures on films, books, or even campaign signs.

As Justice Kennedy said in announcing the opinion, “if the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits jailing citizens for engaging in political speech.”

While the Court has long upheld campaign finance regulations as a way to prevent corruption in elections, it has also repeated that equalizing speech is never a valid government interest.

After all, to make campaign spending equal, the government would have to prevent some people or groups from spending less than they wished. That is directly contrary to protecting speech from government restraint, which is ultimately the heart of American conceptions about the freedom of speech.

No case demonstrates this idea better than Citizens United, where a nonprofit corporation made no donations to candidates but rather spent money to spread its ideas about Hillary Clinton independent of the campaigns of primary opponent Barack Obama, potential general election opponent John McCain, or any other candidates. Where is the “corruption” if the campaign(s) being supported have no knowledge, let alone control over what independent actors do? – be they one person, two people, or a large group?

Today’s ruling may well lead to more corporate and union election spending, but none of this money will go directly to candidates – so there is no possible corruption or even “appearance of corruption.” It will go instead to spreading information about candidates and issues. Such increases in spending should be welcome because studies have shown that more spending — more political communication — leads to better-informed voters.

In short, the Citizens United decision has strengthened both the First Amendment and American democracy.

For more background on the case, here’s a primer:

Blasphemy Laws Are an Admission of Failure

The Washington Post feature “On Faith” today discusses Ireland’s new, profoundly misguided blasphemy law. Blasphemers there can now be fined up to $35,000. That’s a lot of money for a few little words.

Atheist Ireland is testing – and protesting – the law by publishing blasphemous quotations like the following:

“Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.”

“Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.”

“May Allah curse the Jews and Christians for they built the places of worship at the graves of their prophets.”

“Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

They are, respectively, from Jesus, Jesus, Muhammad, and Benedict XVI.

Maybe it’s an American thing, but the Post apparently couldn’t find any panelists to defend the law. These folks are all professional wordsmiths, of course, and these tend to be most supportive of the freedoms that they depend on the most. As I noted in my recent Policy Analysis, those who are most easily offended, and who value free speech the least, tend to gravitate not to newspapers, but to governments (and university administrations). That’s where the power is.

Susan Jacoby, for whom I have the utmost respect, even calls the law Pythonesque, likening it to the Ministry of Silly Walks. Of course, there’s this as well:

Blasphemy laws are oddities, because they concede an awful lot of emotional power to the blasphemer. They tell the world: My feelings are so very fragile. Or perhaps they say: My god is so very weak – so weak that he needs state protection against other gods, or even against mere potty-mouthed humans. Either way, it’s an embarrassing admission, but hardly the business of government. If your god can’t take the heat, he’s hardly a god at all.

Jesus and Mo put it very well indeed:

Adding Free Speech Insult to Property Rights Injury

My friend and former law firm colleague Mark Sigmon – who co-authored Cato’s brief in the New Haven firefighters case – is representing a man facing daily fines for displaying a large political message on his house.

David Bowden was upset about the way he had been treated by the town of Cary, NC, regarding damage to his property during a road-widening project.  This past July, Bowden hired someone to paint “Screwed By The Town of Cary” on the front of his house.  A few weeks ago, the town gave Bowden seven days to remove the sign or face daily fines – $100 for the first day, $250 for the second, $500 for each subsequent day – for violating a local sign ordinance. That’s when Mark, who’s affiliated with the ACLU of North Carolina, filed a lawsuit on Bowden’s behalf.   The complaint alleges that the town violated Bowden’s rights to free speech and to petition his government under the First Amendment and similar provisions of North Carolina’s constitution.

While the facts of this case are a bit colorful – and I’m sure Mark is enjoying the notoriety (here’s his appearance on Fox & Friends) – this is no laughing matter.  The town appears to be compounding the damage it did to a resident’s property rights by now violating his rights to speech and political expression. At least now the town has agreed to refrain from enforcing its ordinance and levying fines until the case is resolved – which is essentially a capitulation to Bowden’s request for a preliminary injunction.

For more news on this story go here, here, and here. And you can read the ACLU’s press release and access all the legal pleadings in the case here.

The New Threats to Free Speech

In a new Policy Analysis, Cato Research Fellow Jason Kuznicki examines the ongoing threats to free speech both at home and around the world, from hate-speech laws in the United Kingdom and Canada and university speech codes in the United States, to the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam:

The result is not more happiness, but a race to the bottom, in which aggrieved groups compete endlessly with one another for a slice of government power. Philosopher Robert Nozick once observed that utilitarianism is hard-pressed to banish what he termed utility monsters—that is, individuals who take inordinate satisfaction from acts that displease others. Arguing about who hurt whose feelings worse, and about who needs more soothing than whom, seems designed to discover—or create—utility monsters. We must not allow this to happen.

Instead, liberal governments have traditionally relied on a particular bargain, in which freedom of expression is maintained for all, and in which emotional satisfaction is a private pursuit, not a public guarantee. This bargain can extend equally to all people, and it forms the basis for an enduring and diverse society, one in which differences may be aired without fear of reprisal. Although world cultures increasingly mix with one another, and although our powers of expression are greater than ever before, these are not sound reasons to abandon the liberal bargain. Restrictions on free expression do not make societies happier or more tolerant, but instead make them more fractious and censorious.

Read the whole thing.