On January 21st 2010, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in the case of Citizens United v . Federal Elections Commission. In a 5 – 4 vote, it ruled that there should no longer be any restrictions on the amount of money corporations and unions can spend on electioneering, technically defined in American law as speech that is an “electioneering communication” and “expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate”.
In so doing the Court overturned a century of legal precedent and, in the words of President Obama in his state of the union speech, “opened the floodgates for special interests -including foreign corporations- to spend without limit in our elections.’
The Tillman Act of 1907 was the first legislation in the US to ban corporations from making financial donations in national political campaigns. Ever since then, the principle has been sacrosanct. Legislators have always been mindful of the First Amendment of the Constitution, which protects freedom of speech, when tackling the campaign finance issue. Until now, restrictions upon corporate and union “speech” within the political domain have never been considered a violation of the First Amendment.
The conduit through which corporations and unions have traditionally been able to influence political parties and candidates is the Political Action Committee (PAC), a private group which is formed in order to either elect candidates or affect political issues or legislation. PAC’s are strictly regulated and have to report all of their financial activities to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). They are only permitted to fund individual candidates to the tune of $5,000 per election and political parties to a maximum of $15,000 per year.
Citizens United is a PAC which released a documentary critical of the then Senator Hillary Clinton, in January 2008. Concerned that it may fall foul of the law, Citizens United took legal action, arguing that the law on campaign finance was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court found in its favor, arguing that political speech is “indispensible to decision making in a democracy, and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation” and they went on to talk about protecting “the open marketplace” of ideas.
In his 90-page dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens points out that “corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires” and that whilst corporations make huge contributions to our society, they are not actually members of it and they cannot vote or run for office. But that may now change. In no time at all, one corporation, Murray Hill Inc., has already filed for a Maryland Congressional Seat.
I believe that the Supreme Court’s judgment in Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission is deeply flawed, both ethically and philosophically. In terms of the latter, it runs counter to both logic and intuition that corporations and human beings can be found to be ontologically comparable.
In respect of the former, it is concerning that the judgment enhances still further the already malign influence of the corporation in US society. As Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who has been at the forefront of the campaign finance issue for two decades, says: “…corporations or unions can just open their treasuries (and) just completely buy up all the television time, and drown out everyone else’s voices.”
The Supreme Court decision feels very much like one taken by a group of partisan political activists. In so doing, the highest court in the land is tarnishing its’ already damaged reputation.
Justice Stevens asserts that the court has willfully turned this issue into one of constitutionality instead of addressing narrower issues which might easily have settled the matter without controversy. For example, he says that it would have been perfectly acceptable for the court to rule that a feature length film, distributed through video-on-demand, did not constitute “an electioneering communication.”