Tag: First Amendment

Citizens United and Corporate Money in Politics

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.

Democracy Will Survive Citizens United

At Politico Arena, today’s focus is on the Court and campaign finance.

My comment:

The ink is barely dry on today’s Citizens United opinion, and the hysteria has already begun.  Set aside the misunderstandings we’re seeing in some of the comments here at the Arena – corporations still cannot, for example, contribute directly to campaigns – even some of those who understand the law and this decision would have us believe that the world as we know it is coming to an end.  Thus, the inimitable Rick Hasen, whose knowledge of these issues is second to none, tells us that “today’s Supreme Court opinion marks a very bad day for American democracy.”  And attorneys at NYU’s Brennan Center, which made its reputation promoting campaign finance “reform,” head up their post with this: “After the Flood: How to Save Democracy Post Citizens United.”  One imagines the Dark Ages just beyond the gloaming.
 
Over on the Hill, meanwhile, Senator Russ Feingold, who’s having a bad day in what must for him be a bad week, promises darkly, “In the coming weeks, I will work with my colleagues to pass legislation restoring as many of the critical restraints on corporate control of our elections as possible.”
 
Relax.  Half of our states, states like Virginia, have minimal campaign finance laws, and there’s no more corruption in those states than in states that strictly regulate.  And that’s because the real reason we have this campaign finance law is not, and never has been, to prevent corruption.  The dirty little secret – the real impetus for this law – in incumbency protection.  How else to explain the so-called Millionaire’s Amendment, which the Court struck down in 2008.  That little gem in the McCain-Feingold “reform” package exempted candidates (read: incumbents) from the law’s strictures if they were running against a self-financed “millionaire,” who could not be prohibited from spending his own money campaigning.  Thus, the nominal rationale for the incomprehensible edifice we call “campaign finance law” – to prohibit corruption – suddenly disappeared if you were running against a millionaire.  Well, the Court, fortunately, saw right through that.  And a majority on the Court saw the light in today’s decision, too.  The First Amendment is not a “loophole.”  It’s the very foundation of our democracy, and we are the stronger today for this decision.

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:

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.

A Lesson for Young Journalists, Courtesy of Justice Kennedy

A high school newspaper in Manhattan recently added a new and prestigious editor to its staff: Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.  Adam Liptak of the New York Times reports:

It turns out that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, widely regarded as one of the court’s most vigilant defenders of First Amendment values, had provided the newspaper, The Daltonian, with a lesson about journalistic independence. Justice Kennedy’s office had insisted on approving any article about a talk he gave to an assembly of Dalton high school students on Oct. 28.

Kathleen Arberg, the court’s public information officer, said Justice Kennedy’s office had made the request to make sure the quotations attributed to him were accurate.

The justice’s office received a draft of the proposed article on Monday and returned it to the newspaper the same day with “a couple of minor tweaks,” Ms. Arberg said. Quotations were “tidied up” to better reflect the meaning the justice had intended to convey, she said.

I’m all for being tidy – and, for all his faults, Kennedy has indeed been friendly to the First Amendment (if not to student speech rights in the “Bong Hits for Jesus” case, Morse v. Frederick) – but public figures don’t usually get to change a story to “better reflect” the intent of their words.

…Frank D. LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, questioned the school’s approach. “Obviously, in the professional world, it would be a nonstarter if a source demanded prior approval of coverage of a speech,” he said. Even at a high school publication, Mr. LoMonte said, the request for prepublication review sent the wrong message and failed to appreciate the sophistication of high school seniors.

While this is hardly a major scandal – and it’s not unusual for justices to exclude the press entirely from public appearances – Kennedy’s use of a judicial editor’s pen does support the general feeling that students don’t always get a fair shake when it comes to their constitutional rights. As I said about an unrelated case in which Cato filed a brief last week (quoting the landmark Tinker case), students shouldn’t have to “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech… at the schoolhouse gate” – especially when a man charged with protecting those rights comes to talk to them about the importance of law and liberty.

H/T: Jonathan Blanks

The Right to Speak in Non-Government-Approved Ways

School officials denied student Pete Palmer the right to wear a shirt supporting John Edwards’s presidential campaign at his Dallas-area high school. They cited the district’s dress code, which prohibited messages on student clothing except for those that supported school activities or district-approved organizations, clubs or teams.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with the school district that this was a reasonable “time, place and manner” speech restriction. Applying the test from United States v. O’Brien, the court found that the dress code was content- and viewpoint-neutral, and served an important governmental purpose. Palmer now seeks Supreme Court review, citing seemingly contradictory precedents from the Second and Third Circuits and arguing that the regulation here flies in the face of the protection afforded to student speech by the famous case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

Cato, joined by the Institute for Justice, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Christian Legal Society, and the National Association of Evangelicals, filed an amicus brief supporting Palmer’s petition and urging the continued use of Tinker. We argue that the Court should clarify its jurisprudence in this area to stop schools from applying broad restrictions in an attempt to avoid controversy and debate—and thereby threaten the very political and religious speech at the First Amendment’s core.

To prevent the chilling of student speech, the Court should solidify Tinker’s central tenet, reaffirming that so long as speech doesn’t “materially and substantially disrupt” the educational process, students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The case is Palmer v. Waxahachie Independent School District. The Court will be deciding early in 2010 whether to hear it.