Politico Arena asked a second question today:
Will Citizens United alter American campaigns and if so, how?
Politico Arena asked a second question today:
Will Citizens United alter American campaigns and if so, how?
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.
As several of my colleagues noted yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Citizens United v. FEC. While I regarded the decision as a victory for free speech, a large number of folks on the left — many of whom support free speech in other contexts — were aghast at the decision, arguing that it would vastly enhance the influence of large corporations in the political process.
Part of my disagreement with these guys is that I’m just a free speech zealot. The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” and I don’t see how that language can be squared with a statute that limits the distribution of a political documentary. The best you can say, I think, is that limiting corporate influence is a “compelling state interest” sufficient to overcome the First Amendment’s ban on speech abridgment, but that’s just another way of saying that you don’t care about free speech very much.
Second, I think it’s important to remember that “corporations” encompass much more than large, for-profit businesses. They also include a wide variety of non-profit and advocacy groups, including the ACLU, the NRA, and NARAL, that are, by any reasonable definition, grassroots organizations advocating the views of large numbers of voters. Indeed, as the ACLU pointed out in its amicus brief, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) prohibited the ACLU from running ads criticizing members of Congress who voted for the awful FISA Amendments Act of 2008. Even if you think it’s appropriate for Congress to regulate the speech of Exxon-Mobil and Pfizer, I think it’s awfully hard to square the First Amendment with a law that limits the ability of NARAL or the NRA to advocate for its members’ views.
But more fundamentally, I don’t buy the idea that limiting corruption is a state interest sufficiently compelling to overcome the First Amendment interest in free speech. I think supporters of BCRA misunderstand how corporations wield influence and dramatically overestimate the power of television advertisements. It’s true, of course, that a corporation prepared to spend $1 million on ads criticizing a particular legislator will get that legislator’s attention. But there’s nothing unique about this. It can also get his attention by hiring a lobbying firm that employs a former staffer. It can get his attention by arranging $100,000 in bundled contributions from executives, clients, and friends of the company. It can get his attention by creating astroturf organizations. And there are probably lots of other mechanisms I haven’t thought of.
The key difference between independent expenditures and the other mechanisms is that independent expenditures are the most open and transparent. To run an effective “issue ad,” a corporation has to make an argument that is persuasive to voters. I don’t want to sugar coat the situation; sometimes independent expenditures finance ads that are sleazy and misleading. But given a choice between corporations spending their money on ads about how Senator Smith hates America or spending their money on K Street, I’ll take the ads, because at least voters still get the final decision.
Moreover, I think we’re moving toward a world in which traditional high-dollar advertising campaigns will become increasingly ineffective. One smart liberal compares the post-Citizens United world to a debate in which “you get 10 seconds to make your case. I’ll take an hour.” This description of the world had a certain plausibility when most people got their news from newspapers and television — media characterized by severe, technologically imposed bottlenecks. These bottlenecks meant that those willing to spend more money could get a significantly bigger soapbox.
This is a lot less true online where users have practically unlimited choices. The web is littered with lavishly funded corporate propaganda that gets a fraction of the traffic of grassroots blogs like Boing Boing. When people have lots of choices, they aren’t likely to stick around very long at a site that dishes up corporate talking points. So while deep pockets will always be an asset in politics, they won’t give 21st century corporations the huge advantages they gave to 20th century corporations.
So I’m not thrilled at the idea of Fortune 500 companies spending a ton of money on bogus “issue ads.” But I think the dangers of such ads are frequently exaggerated. I’m far more worried about preserving the right of organizations like the ACLU to spread their message. And I don’t see any plausible way to stop the former without seriously restricting the latter. So I’m glad to see the Supreme Court take the words of the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law” — literally.
At Politico Arena, today’s focus is on the Court and campaign finance.
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:
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.
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