Monday, October 18, 2010

Corporations and Free Speech

As the election approaches, some thoughts about Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 50 (2010).

I don’t want to get into jurisprudential issues raised by the decision. I’m more interested in what this aspect of our law should be than in what it actually may be. I tend to agree with Justice Stevens that the issue of corporate speech per se should probably have waited for a better fact situation, but such procedural business, like the proper respect for stare decisis in Constitutional cases, are not what I’m here about. I want to talk about corporate-sponsored political speech.

I think the whole “corporate speech” issue is a red herring. Corporations don’t “speak” any more than they pay taxes. People do both. The only question in the matter of corporate speech is whose money is being spent with what authorization. Instead of asking whether a “corporation” is a person, we should be asking whether a person’s right to free speech is affected by how he funds his soapbox. I cannot fathom how that should make a difference.

If I can stand on the street corner and declaim my distaste for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy to anyone who will listen, I don’t see why I should lose that right when the street corner is a web site, or I pay someone to record my message in stentorian tones, or I add pictures, or I decide to sell copies of my production, or I create a corporation to provide limited liability with respect to my activities, or I raise money for the whole thing from people or companies. It’s still me “speaking.”

Nor do I lose my protection if I wear a mask when I speak. Anonymity is part of free speech. If you want to distrust me because I won’t reveal my identity or agenda, feel free. That’s your privilege. Mine is to choose to pay for my anonymity by sacrificing such credibility as it may lose me. If the KKK can wear hoods to its marches, I can wear a corporate veil on my website.

I really dislike the “electioneering communication” device involved in Citizens United. The relevant statute restricts corporate speech in the last few days of a campaign for reasons presumably – why else use the term “electioneering”? – analogous to those that justify banning last-minute speech at polling sites. I haven’t researched the electioneering cases, but I can easily see how “speech” at the polling place can be intimidating, so I fully agree with restrictions being placed upon it. But publication, as opposed to actual physical presence, cannot intimidate. It can mislead – in the same way that the term “electioneering communication” misleads – but that’s a risk we have always run, and I don’t see how we can say that we will risk having people who spend their money themselves mislead us but not those who authorize others (e.g., the managers of their corporate wealth) to do so. So the whole “electioneering communication” concept just smells bad.

The seminal case overruled by Citizens United is Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652 (1990). Austin was not about intimidation so much as the fear of corruption, or the appearance thereof. The syllabus to that case states:

Although 54(1)'s requirements burden the Chamber's exercise of political expression, see FEC v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc., 479 U.S. 238, 252 (MCFL), they are justified by a compelling state interest: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption in the political arena by reducing the threat that huge corporate treasuries, which are amassed with the aid of favorable state laws and have little or no correlation to the public's support for the corporation's political ideas, will be used to influence unfairly election outcomes.

This argument misconstrues the very nature of politics itself in a way unique, I think, to liberal censors. What are we to make of “the threat that huge corporate treasuries, which are amassed with the aid of favorable state laws and have little or no correlation to the public's support for the corporation's political ideas, will be used to influence unfairly election outcomes.”? Let’s break it down.

Does size matter? Certainly, not all corporations have “huge” treasuries. Most do not. But under the laws at issue in Austin and Citizens United, all corporations are restricted by virtue of their form and not their size. And what possible relevance does the fact that the these treasuries were “amassed” with favorable state laws have to do with the matter? Can you imagine removing that fact and coming out with a different Constitutional result? Isn’t all private property “amassed with the aid of favorable state laws”? Indeed, doesn’t the corporation’s reliance on state laws give it a political interest in what those laws will be?

And that’s where Austin goes entirely off the rails. What does the public’s support for a corporation’s political ideas have to do with free speech? Politics is not about ideas; it’s about interests. The corporation’s treasury is the collective wealth of its owners. Advocacy of the owners’ political interests, not the public’s support for the “corporation’s political ideas,” whatever those might be, is what the Constitution protects. If the owners of the corporation’s treasury have authorized the corporation's management to speak on the owners’ behalf, what business is it of anyone to say “no”?

I don’t think the PAC exception solves this problem. I have political interests as a shareholder that it seems entirely proper for my corporate managers to pursue on my behalf. That’s why a corporation can hire lobbyists to promote its shareholders’ interests. I don’t have to agree with the view that my corporation’s lobbyists espouse, and I don’t have to pony up more of my own money to enable the corporation to lobby on my behalf. Why should the election of officials be any different?

That leaves the question of what it means to influence election outcomes “unfairly.” We are not talking about voting early and often. We’re talking about one set of interest-holders being heard disproportionately because of the access to advertising that their money can buy. Where’s the unfairness? Is “equal time” a Constitutionally protected right of all interest-holders?

How many of the people one can fool how much of the time is important, but when the answer is “too many, too often,” the solution is not to restrain those who would do the fooling. The solution is a more savvy citizenry. Teach you children well, and all the bluster in the world will not avail the charlatans. McCain-Feingold and its supporters say, in effect, that the American people are too stupid for full-throated democracy.

In short, nothing in this lynchpin description of the rationale for suppressing corporate speech makes a whit of Constitutional sense. So I don’t Austin will be missed. Requiescat in pacem.