U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether Corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals.

September 5, 2009 | By | 5 Replies More

On September 4, 2009, Bill Moyers hosted Trevor Potter, president and general counsel of The Campaign Legal Center (and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission), and Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment attorney.  You can view the entire discussion here. The topic is whether longstanding federal election laws should be held unconstitutional so that corporations can freely spend unlimited amounts of money (e.g., in the form of movies, books, and other private initiatives) in order to directly affect the outcome of federal political campaigns.  The case is  Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission.

U.S. Supreme Court (Image by Erich Vieth)

U.S. Supreme Court (Image by Erich Vieth)

Many legal commentators are suggesting the Supreme Court has already suggested that it leaning in favor of the corporations on this issue.   And we can almost guarantee how Chief Justice John Roberts is going to vote on this issue (and see here).   I highly recommend viewing this discussion.  I thought that Abrams looked very much like a man who was being paid big money to take position he knew to be reprehensible.  On the other hand, Trevor Potter is taking a position that looks out for people like you and me.   I realize that powerful corporate interests have already made puppets out of Congress, the SEC, the FDA and many other federal agencies (see these recent examples regarding tobacco legislation and the rejection of the bankruptcy cram-down option).

With this as the context, I believe that Citizens United boils down to a simple question:  Should our government be at least somewhat run by ordinary people or should corporate money flow even more  freely at election time (much more than it flows already), allowing our federal government to be taken over entirely by powerful corporations driven almost entirely by the profit motive?

Here are a few excerpts from Moyers’ discussion with Potter and Abrams:

TREVOR POTTER: This is a case about corporate money. If this case is won by the corporation, we will be in the ironic situation where corporations will have no limits on what they can spend in elections and unions still will. So, it’s important to remember we’re talking about corporations.  Corporations exist solely to make money. Amassing economic power. They want, if they could get it out of government, monopolies. They want the ability to defeat their competitors. And if they can use government to do that, they will. Individuals have a whole range of interests. Individuals go to church, they care about religious and social issues, they care about the future of the country. They’re voters.

So, they have a range of issues at stake that corporations don’t have. Corporations just want to make money. So, if you let the corporation with a privileged economic legal position loose in the political sphere, when we’re deciding who to elect, I think you are giving them an enormous advantage over individuals and not a healthy one for our democracy.  . . . [C]orporations have a different status. And they ought to be focused on the economic marketplace and not the political marketplace.

FLOYD ABRAMS: You’re opening the faucet, so to speak, so that more speech can occur. I don’t think it’s a can of worms to say that corporations, and it is unions as well, ought to be able to participate in the give and take of the democratic processes in the country. From my perspective, at least, the notion of saying that corporations and unions should be out of the picture either because they’re too powerful, or because of the way their money has been created, is so inconsistent with the sort of First Amendment approach that we take in everything else, where we say over and over again, we don’t care who the speaker is, we don’t care where the speaker’s coming from. And speech, we think, is, as a generality, a good thing . . .

BILL MOYERS: But we’re not talking about free press issues here. We’re talking about the power of an organized economic interest to spend vast sums of money that individuals can’t spend . . . Would you disagree with the claim that big business dominates the political discussion today? Whether it’s the drug industry or the health insurance industry? Big business is the dominant force in Washington. I mean, I see that as a journalist . . . we’re not talking about free press issues here. We’re talking about the power of an organized economic interest to spend vast sums of money that individuals can’t spend.

It is important to deny powerful profit-seeking organizations the right to skew federal election results even more than they do currently.  If the Supreme Court goes the wrong way on this issue, it would even make a mockery out of clean-money initiatives, such as this plan being promoted by Common Cause and this plan by Public Citizen.

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Category: Censorship, Civil Rights, Communication, Court Decisions, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    Many states have individual limits on corporate spending which have been upheld in the past. This case is just another where in the ordinary course of the Court it should be a loser for Big Business. The doctrine of "stare decisis" or "let the decision stand" should guide the Court to rule against Big Business.

    But, the Roberts Court has yet to rule against business in any major decision yert. I expect another 5-4 decision, written by CJ Roberts, and that the fascist croporatists will win again. It will be another tortured decision somewhat like others where the Court claims to uphold precedent but, overturns decades of prior contrary jurisprudence.

  2. Jay Fraz says:

    I have long said that we have given them human rights, thus we must give them human punishments.

    When corporations purposefully commit crimes, lets institute a 'incarcerations' and 'death penalties'. For minor infractions force the selling off of certain divisions involved. In serious cases all assets are broken up and sold to the highest bidder.

    I dearly hope we do not lose this battle. Sometimes I feel impotent in dealing with these greed mongers and I wonder at what point would direct action be necessary.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Before long we may see Microsoft or ATT running for president.

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