American democracy is in peril.
So say campaign finance “reformers” as they lament today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC. In that case, the court vindicated free-speech rights by holding that the First Amendment prevents the government from banning corporations from spending their money to express their views about candidates for office.
More broadly, the court’s ruling stands for the proposition that the government may not censor political speech, no matter who is doing the speaking: “When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful.”
But, as soon as the decision came out, “reform” groups—without a trace of irony—exercised their right of free speech to declare that the end of the censorship of corporations’ speech is a terrible thing for the country. Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which lobbies for strict restrictions on free speech, warns ominously that the decision “is a disaster for the American people.” Common Cause asserts that the decision has created a “political crisis.” On its Web page, Public Citizen proclaims, in huge red lettering, that “SUPREME COURT UNDOES DEMOCRACY.”
This hyperbole betrays a belief—common among proponents of restrictions on political speech—that Americans, like lemmings, are merely dull creatures who can be easily led off a cliff. Thus, unless the government “protects” us from hearing corporations’ speech about politics, we’ll always vote in ways that benefit corporations because they will spend lots of money to convince us to do so.
This conclusion is as ridiculous as it is patronizing. If corporations are capable of making the public do their bidding, then why isn’t everyone driving their Edsels to Circuit City to purchase Betamax video recorders?
The answer, of course, is that Americans are not imbeciles who mindlessly succumb to corporate advertising campaigns. We are fully capable of evaluating corporate speech on its merits; thus, we do not need “protection” from it.
When the Founders guaranteed to Americans the right of free speech, they knew that, for our democracy to survive, the people must be trusted to hear arguments about public issues and then make up their own minds. As the court emphatically made clear today, “The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.” The alternative—suppression of speech disfavored by the government—was the surest road back to the tyranny the Founders fought to escape.
The Founders’ crucial insight was that politicians, under the guise of acting in the public interest, will always attempt to censor effective political speech that could negatively impact their power and chances for re-election. Thus, it is them, not corporations or other speakers, from whom Americans need protection. Accordingly, the Founders, in language that could not be clearer, enshrined within the First Amendment the requirement that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.”
By striking down federal restrictions on corporate speech in Citizens United, the Supreme Court has demonstrated that it understands the meaning and importance of this simple command. If this understanding continues to elude “reformers,” then perhaps it is not the public’s mental prowess they should be questioning.
Bert Gall is a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which filed a friend of the court brief in Citizens United and litigates nationwide against free speech restrictions. For more information, visit www.ij.org.