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: