Tag: First Amendment

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.

Socialists Shouldn’t Have to Admit Libertarians Into Their Club

Hastings College of the Law, a public law school in California, has a policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disabilities, age, sex or sexual orientation.” In 2004, the Christian Legal Society, a religious student organization at the school, applied to become a “recognized student organization” – a designation that would have allowed CLS to receive a variety of benefits afforded to about 60 other Hastings groups. While all are welcome to attend CLS meetings, CLS’s charter requires that its officers and voting members abide by key tenets of the Christian faith and comport themselves in ways consistent with its fundamental mission, which includes a prohibition on “unrepentant” sexual conduct outside of marriage between one man and one woman.

Hastings denied CLS registration on the asserted ground that this charter conflicts with the school’s nondiscrimination policy. CLS sued Hastings, asking for no different treatment than is given to any registered student group. The district court granted Hastings summary judgment and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether Hastings’s refusal to grant CLS access to student organization benefits amounted to viewpoint discrimination, which is impermissible under the First Amendment.

Yesterday Cato filed an amicus brief supporting CLS – authored by preeminent legal scholar Richard Epstein – in which we argue that CLS’s right to intimate and expressive association trump any purported state interest in enforcing a school nondiscrimination policy. While Hastings may impose reasonable restrictions on access to limited public forums, it should not be allowed to admit speakers with one point of view while excluding speakers who hold different views. Our brief also discredits Hastings’s assertion that its ability to exclude the public at large from school premises renders their content-based speech restrictions constitutional.

We urge the Court to safeguard public university students’ right to form groups – which by definition exclude people – free from government interference or censorship.  (Of course, our first choice would be for the government to get out of the university business and our second choice would be to stop forcing taxpayers to pay for student clubs, but given those two realities – as in the case at hand – freedom of association is the way to go.)

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?

If You Prick a Corporation, Does It Not Bleed?

Well, no, because as my liberal friends all seem to be indignantly announcing in the aftermath of the Citizens United ruling, corporations aren’t really people! They’re creatures of statute, and “corporate personhood” is just a convenient legal fiction.  Which is fair enough, but also seems to miss the point rather spectacularly. As a practical matter, it is hard to imagine any constitutional liberty that could not be reduced to a hollow joke if we refused to count as an infringement any regulation that nominally targeted only the corporate mechanism for coordinating its exercise.

Having dispensed with the repellent doctrine of corporate personhood, we can happily declare that journalists enjoy full freedom of the press … as long as they don’t plan on using the resources of the New York Times Company or Random House or Comcast, which as mere legal fictions can be barred from using their property to circulate unpatriotic ideas. You’re free to practice your religion without interference — but if it’s an unpopular one, well, let’s hope you don’t expect to send your kids to a religious school or build a church or something, because those tend to involve incorporating. A woman’s right to choose is sacrosanct, but since  clinics and hospitals are mere corporations with no such protection, she’d better hope she knows a doctor who makes house calls. Fill in your own scenarios, it’s easy.

The irony here is that it’s libertarians who are often accused of a myopic obsession with formal liberties rather than their real-world value to people — “the law in its majestic equality” and all that. But this, surely, would be the height of empty formalism — a right to swing your fist that stops at the air.

I think people are obsessing over this because we often think of rights as flowing, at least in part, from respect for our intrinsic human dignity, and it seems equal parts farcical and offensive to suggest that institutions like Exxon and Nike are in the same moral category. As a purely ethical matter, of course corporations as such don’t have rights. As a practical matter, though, rights that wither at the corporate touch won’t do you a whole lot of good in the 21st century.

Speech For Me, But Not for Thee

Politico Arena asked a second question today:

Will Citizens United alter American campaigns and if so, how?

My response:

Will Citizens United alter American campaigns?  Probably – and for the good.  Corporations, unions, and their officers will no longer fear criminal prosecution if they run afoul of inscrutable prohibitions on independent political campaign expenditures that not even FEC commissioners understand.  There will be more political speech as a result, and more perspectives on the issues of the day.  That speech will come from all sides – after all, George Soros and Rupert Murdoch are not likely to be saying the same things, and with restraints prior to elections now lifted, differences like those will doubtless be reflected in great variety in the speech that comes from the rest of corporate and union America.  And most important, the core function of the First Amendment, the protection of political speech, has been restored in important, if not in all, respects.
 
But other, more sinister, results may also flow from yesterday’s decision.  President Obama’s new populism surfaced immediately:  He called the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies,” and other “special interests.”  And The New York Times, in an all but unhinged editorial, pronounced that “with a single, disastrous 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century.”  Claiming that the decision “strikes at the heart of democracy,” the Times tells us that ”Congress must act immediately to limit the damage of this radical decision.”  How?  By enacting “a law requiring publicly traded corporations to get the approval of their shareholders before spending on political campaigns.”  So much for corporate internal-governance rights.  And get this:  “Congress should repair the presidential public finance system and create another one for Congressional elections to help ordinary Americans contribute to campaigns.”  As if ordinary Americans could not contribute to campaigns without such congressional assistance.  Concerning the “presidential public finance system,” it’s been in place for years – you can check off a contribution when you pay your taxes.  That fewer and fewer Americans are choosing to contribute through this “public” financing system speaks volumes, of course.  And it tells us too why Citizens United has brought forth such rage among the decision’s opponents:  It’s a major setback to their larger agenda.  You see, the complex federal campaign finance system that has grown steadily – until yesterday – was never meant to be the final word.  It was only a way station to public campaign financing.  Once there, at that ultimate end, political speech in the form of campaign contributions would rest safely in incorruptible public hands – save, of course, for those contributions that take the form of editorials coming from such corporate giants as The New York Times, which the First Amendment would continue to protect.  Now there is a vision that warms the soul of the Great Gray Lady.

The Government Should Have Less Power to Tax and Spend, Not More Power to Regulate Speech

Yesterday, The Hill asked various pundits and politicos to respond to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.  The Big Question (as their periodic feature is called) was, “Will corporate money change campaigns?”  You can read my response here.

Today, that same newspaper invited me to blog some further thoughts on the Citizens United decision.  Here’s what I wrote:

Critics of yesterday’s decision say the sky of American democracy is falling.  Supporters—including myself—say it’s a great day for the republic and a vindication of the freedom of speech.  How can this be?  Are nonprofit think tanks and advocacy groups like my own Cato Institute, the ACLU, the NRA, and many other odd bedfellows who supported Citizens United all in the pockets of Wall Street, Big Oil, insurance companies, and others that President Obama assails as corrupting our politics?  Leaving aside the issue of why the politician who got more of his campaign funding from Goldman Sachs than any other source would be going after the very industries that most support him, the asymmetry in this debate rests on the myth that money is an evil in the political system, and that therefore the American people want so-called campaign finance reform to “clean up” government.

Money is no more an evil in politics than it is in life generally.  Some people may not like mud-slinging attack ads, but some people also don’t like SUVs, the Super Bowl, the Jay Leno Show, and many other things that people spend money on—including donations to Cato, the ACLU, the NRA, etc.  The problem with money in politics isn’t the money, but rather the politics.  So long as the government is powerful enough to dole out tax breaks, subsidies, stimulus funds, regulations, earmarks, and a whole host of other goodies (and baddies), those that stand to benefit (and lose) will spend money on the political process.  The way to get rid of this behavior and spending—which is constitutionally protected in a whole host of ways: freedom of speech, freedom of association, the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, etc.—is to reduce the government’s power to affect so many people’s lives and transform economic incentives for businesses big and small.  Reduce the size of government and K Street will melt away.

Finally, as my colleague Roger Pilon points out, 26 states have minimal campaign finance laws, with no evidence that those states have more corruption—or a more unequal “political playing field”—than states that strictly regulate.  And that’s because the real reason we have campaign finance regulations—the dirty little secret behind the whole convoluted regime—is that it’s an incumbency protection racket.  From the so-called “millionaire’s amendment” that the Supreme Court struck down in 2008 to the limits on corporate and union advocacy that the Court struck down yesterday, McCain-Feingold and all other campaign finance legislation—passed by self-interested politicians—is designed to make it harder for challengers.  After-all, incumbents have the benefit of name recognition, taxpayer-funded travel to and around their home districts and states, taxpayer-funded campaign literature disguised as informational flyers touting all the great things a congressman is doing, and a host of other advantages.

The First Amendment is not a “loophole” for big business and those of us who want freer speech—without bureaucrats deciding who gets to speak when and how much—are not corporate shills.  Free speech is the very foundation of our democracy, and we are stronger today for the Citizens United decision.