Does money have the right to speak?

The US supreme court’s decision on Citizens United raises a vital issue: should corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals? Brian Pellot discusses the case.

The case

Citizens United v Federal Election Commission (2010) was a US supreme court decision that in effect declared that first amendment free speech rights apply not only to individuals, but also to corporations and unions. The case arose when the right-wing non-profit corporation Citizens United was blocked from airing a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton before the 2008 Democratic primaries. The ruling overturned a provision set down in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 curtailing corporation-funded ads that directly name federal candidates. Critics of the decision, including President Barack Obama, argued that unlimited political spending by rich corporations with political agendas would create huge inequalities in speech that could undermine democracy.

Author opinion

Former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, who co-sponsored the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, was spot on in describing the Citizens United decision as “a terrible mistake”. Ronald Dworkin, a prominent legal philosopher who writes on free speech, argued that increased corporate advertising would mislead the public and undermine rather than improve their political education. The Free Speech Debate team explicitly defines “We” in Principle 1 as “all human beings” – not as all organisations or corporations. Corporations are not individual citizens; they are faceless giants with deep pockets who should not be afforded the same free speech rights as individuals. Feingold is now working to combat corporate influence in politics with a new organisation called Progressives United. I wish him luck.

- Brian Pellot

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  1. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    All of you raise interesting and valid points. Dinatee’s idea of a spending cap is a perhaps good one, primarily because this is how things DID work before Citizens United. Troubling developments, like Sheldon Adelson’s recent $10 million contribution to a pro-Romney super-PAC (political action committee), confirm the need for the Citizens United decision to be overturned. Let’s keep a close eye on how super-PAC donations from the super wealthy affect the electoral outcome in November.

  2. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    This decision absolutely strikes me.

    It threatens a principle enshrined in law for many years that corporations, because of their artificial legal nature and special privileges pose a unique threat to American democracy.
    One could certainly argue that a corporation that is allowed to free speech has a higher leverage than individuals in regard to power relations. Free speech thus becomes a power question, not a legal one.
    The American elections this year will be driven by an influx of unlimited cash from super-rich Americans and shadowy campaign organisations (super-PACS) that can hide their donors.

    Is that what can be understood as free speech?

  3. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I wonder if there is a middle ground that would be more appropriate to look into… maybe a cap or a provision that takes into account the organization’s mission (that seems like a legal nightmare, but still…). I admittedly have very rudimentary knowledge of the case, but to me things seem a little less black and white.

    For example, while I do not agree that large corporations should have the power to trump individuals, I also believe that there are a lot of NGOs and, dare I say it, lobbyist organizations who serve as a representative of many whose voices wouldn’t be heard otherwise.

    What I mean to say is, if we only allow individuals to contribute monetarily, then doesn’t that just mean that the wealthiest of individuals can similarly shut out those of us average or below average citizens who would also like to through our support for a certain candidate who may better protect our rights and freedoms as we see it? Don’t some (admittedly a minority) of these organizations bring organization, expertise, and money to stand up for things like women’s rights (how many men are millionaires compared to women), minority rights (same argument), etc?

    I hope this comment doesn’t seem ridiculous as, again, I know little about the case. But I enjoy hearing different opinions and would love to learn more (which is another way of saying this website is awesome)!

    • Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      typo: “…below average citizens who would also like to express our speech freely through our support for a certain candidate who…”

  4. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    A corporate body is inanimate therefore cannot possibly have right to free speech which by definition belongs only to humans. However nothing prevents employees of such bodies from speaking about their needs which must not ever superceed human rights, which I suggest is what led to the Bophal disaster in India with the loss of human lives and health. It is right and necessary for Corporations to express views but I suggest to protect the rights of those standing against claimed rights of such powerful bodies they should be provided with equal funding by them to make for a level field of play the cost of which no doubt would be offset against tax so justice could not only be done but seen to be. How different it would have been then for the people in India had such a law been in place at that time would it not?

  5. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Corporation , though not individuals do play an important role in society in every possible way. Lets take the example of Google and social media like Facebook and Twitter and how has it changed the face of society. These so-called corporations would are responsible for providing a platform for the Arab spring and have provided a voice to the grieving masses which were ignored by the nations. I however also agree with Brian that corporations can mislead the public but this argument can also be used for general current media which has biased views ( like Fox News which has a open conservative agenda) but then why are there no restrictions on them. Inspite of limiting the voice of corporations we should provide regulators that would ban and penalize any forms of false propaganda. Stopping corporations from expressing their message will only lead them to employ illegal means of getting their message to the people by bribing senators and other public celebrities. This attitude can be more dangerous for a democracy and defeats the idea of free speech. Hence , giving corporations a voice is essential for a progressive democracy.

    • Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      Who decides if ‘Propaganda’ is false?

  6. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Such freedom of expression should be limited to individuals within corporations having the right to express their own views

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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