Citizens United protects women’s free speech rights, along with everyone else’s

Kathryn Ciano Associate, Institute for Justice
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For the second anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, Christine, wrote an article calling for American women to “join together to combat [the decision’s] nefarious effects on our lives and our families.” In the piece, Pelosi ridicules Justice Antonin Scalia for supporting freedom of speech on the grounds that people can just “shut it off” if they don’t want to listen.

In Pelosi’s view, people cannot just “shut it off,” so she, like many other critics of Citizens United, supports laws that will “shut it off” for them.

Pelosi claims that limiting or banning spending on speech will promote “equality.” But what Pelosi is after is not equality before the law; it’s censorship. In America the government cannot simply legislate against certain people because people like Christine Pelosi find them “too influential” and are afraid they might be able to convince others to vote a certain way.

As the Supreme Court noted in Citizens United, the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect our right to think for ourselves. People are fully capable of evaluating the messages they hear. While this may surprise Ms. Pelosi, that is even true of women. At its core, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United recognizes that individuals, not the government, have the right to decide what to say and what messages to listen to.

Citizens United upheld individuals’ right to speak by overturning a law that allowed the federal government to fine or imprison people who use money from a corporate or union treasury to pay for political speech. The government was literally asserting the power to ban the distribution of a political documentary and even pamphlets or books. Nothing could be more antithetical to the First Amendment.

By defending individuals’ right to speak and to associate, Citizens United protects the right of women to join together to make their voices heard. The Supreme Court’s decision gives all women, not just daughters of congressional leaders, an opportunity to combine their voices in the form of an association, as they did when campaigning for women’s suffrage. It wasn’t the government that gave women the right to vote; it was women, joining together with other women, men, and organizations, who won that right. Without the ability to speak collectively, women could never have secured the right to vote at all.

Pelosi’s call for the government to limit political speech would make it impossible for groups of people to speak out together on their own behalf. That’s ultimately what Citizens United held — that corporations are associations of people. Contrary to popular belief, the court did not hold that corporations are people. It held that corporations must be free to speak because the people who compose them are free to speak. Why should those people lose their First Amendment rights merely because they associate with one another to make their speech more effective?

What makes Pelosi’s piece so offensive is the idea that women have more trouble dealing with other people’s free speech than men. But that perspective should have gone out with jodhpur boots and knickers. Self-respecting women reject the idea that women need protecting from other people’s views.

At bottom, it is the First Amendment that Pelosi opposes. By calling for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, Pelosi wants to make it impossible for people to associate and speak more effectively and for voters to judge the messages they hear on their own.

But neither women, nor anyone else, need to be protected from the responsibility of critical thinking, or told when they may join with others to speak about politics. Limiting the speech of those whose views are contrary to your own is not equality; it’s censorship.

Kathryn Ciano works for the Institute for Justice, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief that was cited by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC.