Poll on Citizens United shows support for free political speech

A poll released today by the Center for Competitive Politics shows that Americans generally support First Amendment rights in politics for corporations, unions and nonprofit advocacy groups.

A majority of respondents supported the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission when asked about the facts of the case and its result: “that incorporated entities—businesses, unions and nonprofit advocacy groups—have a First Amendment right to spend money from their general treasuries to fund independent advertisements urging people to vote for or against candidates for public office.”

“Citizens hold complex views on money in politics. They are wary of ‘special interests’ as well as ‘corporate’ spending, and some are surprisingly willing to censor the press,” said CCP Chairman Bradley A. Smith. “At the same time, Americans understand that campaign finance restrictions have failed to reduce the influence of ‘special interests’ and don’t support government efforts to silence the political views of groups, including unions and corporations.”

“Americans also strongly oppose regulations that would restrict the distribution of political books, movies and other publications,” Smith said.

Victory Enterprises, an Iowa-based polling and consulting firm, conducted the national survey of 600 likely voters March 1-2 for the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP). The poll has a +/- 4 percent margin of error with a 95 percent confidence interval.

A strong majority of respondents—63 percent—rejected giving government “the power to limit how much some people speak about politics in order to enhance the voice of others.” Seventeen percent supported giving government that authority.

By nearly three to one, likely voters agreed with the Supreme Court’s actual holding in Citizens United. Fifty-one percent of respondents said the government should not have been able to prevent Citizens United from airing ads promoting a documentary critical of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Eighteen percent supported banning the ads. A similar percentage—fifty-one percent—thought the government should not be able to prevent the advocacy nonprofit from distributing the film through video-on-demand broadcasting, while just 19 percent would give government that ability. Fifty-five percent opposed giving the government the ability to censor political books and movies; 25 percent supported such state authority.

When asked about the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as McCain-Feingold), which “placed new restrictions on corporate and union political spending and contributions to political parties, with the goal of reducing special interest influence,” a three to one plurality—44 percent vs. 14 percent—thought the legislation was unsuccessful in reducing special interest influence. Thirty-two percent weren’t sure.

A majority—59 percent—believed that the news media have “substantial influence on political campaigns,” and 30 percent of respondents support government-imposed restrictions on the press to “equalize political influence.” Fifty-one percent oppose these media restrictions. These numbers suggest that support for outright censorship of the institutional press is as great as—or greater than—support for limiting the publication and distribution of books and movies paid for by unions and non-media corporations.

A plurality—just under 50 percent—opposed allowing the federal government to “impose criminal or civil penalties against individual citizens or corporations for spending money to engage in political speech.” Twenty-eight percent supported such authority.

When given four hypotheticals about independent political expenditures by a teachers union, a trade association, an environmental nonprofit, and restaurants, a plurality in each case supported the First Amendment right of these associations to run independent expenditures.

“After nearly six weeks of non-stop demagoguery and distortions after the Citizens United decision, Americans are still hesitant to squelch the First Amendment rights of their fellow citizens simply because they choose to speak through a business corporation, a union or an advocacy group,” said CCP President Sean Parnell. “Politicians rushing to ‘fix’ the supposed problem need to stop listening to sound bites by free speech opponents and instead consider what the American people really think when presented with the facts of this decision.”

CCP is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization formed by former Federal Election Commission Chairman Bradley A. Smith to promote and protect the First Amendment political rights of speech, assembly and petition.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.