Tag: free speech

Democracy against Free Speech?

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.

Sean Parnell asks whether the wording of the questions in this poll drove the results. William McGinley shares Parnell’s concerns and suggests some alternative questions for future polling.

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.

When Individuals Form Corporations, They Don’t Lose Their Rights

The blogosphere has been abuzz on the heels of the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United opinion.  Hysteric criticisms of the speculative changes to our political landscape aside – including the President’s misstatements in the State of the Union – one of the most common and oft-repeated criticisms is that the Constitution does not protect corporations. Several “reform” groups have even drafted and circulated constitutional amendments to address this concern.

This line of attack demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of corporations and the freedoms protected by the Constitution, which is exemplified by the facile charge that “corporations aren’t human beings.”

Well of course they aren’t — but that’s constitutionally irrelevant:  Corporations aren’t “real people” in the sense that the Constitution’s protection of sexual privacy or prohibition on slavery make no sense in this context, but that doesn’t mean that corporate entities also lack, say, Fourth Amendment rights.  Or would the “no rights for corporations” crowd be okay with the police storming their employers’ offices and carting off their (employer-owned) computers for no particular reason? — or to chill criticism of some government policy. 

Or how about Fifth Amendment rights?  Can the mayor of New York exercise eminent domain over Rockefeller Center by fiat and without compensation if he decides he’d like to move his office there?

So corporations have to have some constitutional rights or nobody would form them in the first place.  The reason they have these rights isn’t because they’re “legal” persons, however – though much of the doctrine builds on that technical point – but instead because corporations are merely one of the ways in which rights-bearing individuals associate to better engage in a whole host of constitutionally protected activity.

That is, the Constitution protects these groups of rights-bearing individuals. The proposition that only human beings, standing alone, with no group affiliation whatsoever, are entitled to First Amendment protection – that “real people” lose some of their rights when they join together in groups of two or ten or fifty or 100,000 – is legally baseless and has no grounding in the Constitution. George Mason law professor Ilya Somin, also a Cato adjunct scholar, discusses this point here.

In any event, as Chief Justice Roberts said in his Citizens United concurrence: “The First Amendment protects more than just the individual on a soapbox and the lonely pamphleteer.” Justice Scalia makes the same point, explaining that the text of the Constitution “makes no distinction between types of speakers.” The New York Times isn’t “an individual American” but its speech is still protected under the First Amendment (regardless of any exemption for “media corporations” – whatever those are in a world where conglomerates own interests not limited to media, not to mention the advent of blogs and other “new” media).

A related line of attack is that individuals acting through corporations should be denied their freedom of speech because corporations are “state-created entities.” The theory goes that if a state has the power to create corporations, then it has the power to define those entities’ rights. Somin rebuts the weakness of this argument here, correctly pointing out that nearly every newspaper and political journal in the country is a corporation.

In short, the contention that the First Amendment does not protect corporations ignores the fact that there is no constitutional difference between individuals and groups of individuals, however organized.  Still, I give credit to the groups who are proposing constitutional amendments that would limit corporate rights: at least they recognize that, after Citizens United, there is no basis upon which to argue that the First Amendment does not protect corporate political speech.  The Free Speech Clause, after all, is blind as to the nature of the speaker.

For further concise refutations of the basic arguments against Citizens United, see here (points 3-6 address issues relating to corporations and their rights).

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: