The Anniversary of Citizens United

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Today, you will hear a lot about the so-called corrosive effect of money in politics; or how super PACs are destabilizing the American system. But you will not see a whole lot of the text of the First Amendment.  Let’s repeat: “Congress shall make no law….abridging the freedom of speech.” The Constitution does not say “Congress shall permit the government to abridge the speech of people and associations that the majority does not like.”

Few people likes banks. Or insurance companies. Or oil companies. Or their local Chinese restaurant that totally overcharges you for General Tso’s chicken. (Maybe the last one is just me.)  Lots of people don’t like unions, the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association, or their dry cleaner that tried to charge $20 for sewing up a jacket pocket. (Maybe the last one is just me.)

But nobody has the right to abridge or stifle their speech. When the Citizens United decision was handed down two years ago, one would have thought the world was ending. The professional left decried the opinion:

Representative Rosa L. DeLauro: “With this ill-advised spate of judicial activism, five Supreme Court justices have struck down the distinction between individuals and corporations in election law and opened the floodgates to a hostile corporate takeover of our democratic process.”

Representative Alan Grayson: “The Supreme Court in essence has ruled that corporations can buy elections. If that happens, democracy in America is over.”

Senator John Kerry: “I think we need a constitutional amendment to make it clear once and for all that corporations do not have the same free speech rights as individuals.” (Source)

But what the decision actually did was make the following very clear: “the Government cannot restrict political speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity.” 

And this is a good thing.  Because as much as I, or you, or Stephen Colbert may deplore various interest groups, unions, corporations, deep pocketed billionaires, or the waitress that asks “Are you sure” to an order for a hamburger cooked rare, they all have a right to express their opinions on candidates, causes, and the state of the country.

As James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, wrote in The Federalist: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

Citizens United restored Madison’s wisdom to the law. Under current law, everyone, whether individually or singly with others in a corporate or union form, can (so long as they do not connive and coordinate directly with campaigns) firmly state their opinion about candidates or causes over the airwaves or in print.

Does this mean that there are lots of super PACs spending lots of money to get these opinions about the President or Mitt Romney or Elizabeth Warren on TV? Absolutely. And that is precisely the point.  As Justice Kennedy wrote in Citizens United: “it is our law and our tradition that more speech, not less, is the governing rule.”

And we at CCP would not have it any other way. We stand with columnist Richard Cohen, who once wrote: “I am comfortable with dirty politics. I fear living with less free speech.”

So today, go out with your friends and criticize the hell out of your elected representatives. Or those challenging them. Or talk about gay marriage. It’s your right, no matter how you and your friends choose to organize.

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