One Perspective: Cash, corporations, unions and free speech

By Joseph  G. Lehman

Mackinac Center for Public Policy

You may not have heard that you got some of your freedom back. In a landmark decision in January, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that government may not prevent corporations or unions from spending money to engage in independent political speech. Because of the way most news outlets covered the decision, it was not obvious that it had anything to do with individual liberty.

The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, involved the government preventing a nonprofit group from advertising a film depicting Hillary Clinton in an unappealing light right before an election. The Supreme Court found the government had improperly restricted political speech, reversing key parts of two previous decisions and overruling some of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance regulations of 2002.

In plain English, the decision means the First Amendment protects the right of people acting through corporations (of which unions and other nonprofits are often a type) to spend their money to say pretty much what they want, when they want, about political candidates. It did not change restrictions on contributions to candidates’ campaigns.

Nothing may seem more American than speaking one’s mind about politicians without being fined or jailed, but the negative reaction was immediate and nearly hysterical. Even President Obama took a swipe at the Supreme Court decision in his State of the Union speech.

The two groups that complained most bitterly were the ones who love campaign finance regulation the most: news corporations and incumbent politicians. Newspapers and other media want to remain the only kind of corporation completely free to criticize or praise any politician at any time in their pages and broadcasts. And every elected official benefits from laws that restrict the ability of others to criticize.

Breathless commentators predicted that tsunamis of corporate cash will sweep elected officials into big business’s back pocket. Others pointed out that the decision treats unions and other corporations equally. Hardly anyone mentioned how the ruling helps level the playing field for the little guy, but that’s the most important point.

Citizens United does away with a raft of mind-numbing restrictions on who can spend how much to say what about whom and when. The decision won’t change things all that much for big companies and unions whose attorneys had figured out how to legally get their money into politics anyway.

But it’s an enormous help for small companies or groups of average citizens who want to make their political beliefs known but can’t afford a team of attorneys or risk big fines for messing up the paperwork. In other words, the Supreme Court sent a signal that political speech is not just for professionals.

Mackinac Center supporters can be especially proud of two special connections to the case. Founding Director Richard McClellan argued before the Supreme Court 19 years ago for freedom in political speech. Citizens United specifically overturns the 1990 ruling that went against McClellan’s client. Also vindicated by the decision is Board of Scholars member Bradley

A. Smith, who as a member of the Federal Election Commission stood nearly alone as a high-profile critic of McCain-Feingold. Congratulations, gentlemen.

Joseph G. Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.