With confirmation hearings for President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch fast approaching, the specter of corporate influence is sure to emerge once again in the headlines. Predictably, several Democratic Senators have already begun their diatribe against “big money corporate interests” and a nominee who “does not recognize that corporations are not people.”
But while opponents of corporate speech rights ramp up their rhetoric, many others seem to be celebrating political speech from businesses. By now, millions have seen the Super Bowl ads that made some not-so-subtle political statements. As is to be expected, some have decided to #boycott certain companies as a result. But the reception has been mostly positive, with some even suggesting that politically tinged marketing could bring the country closer together.
It is undeniable, as evidenced by the reaction of right-wing media outlets, that the political ads were largely left-leaning or at least anti-Trump. Given the praise that these commercials received, it appears that liberals are now embracing corporate political speech.
The Super Bowl isn’t the only evidence that liberals’ disdain towards the president may be pushing them towards accepting corporate speech rights.
Norm Eisen of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and a former ethics czar under President Obama, recently stated that he would help Nordstrom sue the president for comments he made criticizing the corporation on Twitter.
It is likely that Eisen just wants to take a shot at Trump. But his comments regarding Nordstrom make clear that he supports the right of corporations to defend themselves in court against powerful politicians.
Why then does he support limiting the ability of corporations to speak about politicians? Eisen has repeatedly denounced corporations’ right to independently speak about politics. And CREW is a national organization that has worked diligently to strip First Amendment political speech rights from businesses.
Maybe Norm Eisen really cares about protecting businesses from unlawful government actions. If so, he should display the same support for corporate political speech rights that he has shown for a corporation’s right to sue the president.
Democratic politicians and organizations that support an anti-speech agenda continue to push the narrative that corporate speech rights give corporations the right to “buy elections and run our government.” This is preposterous.
Everyone recognizes that protecting freedom of speech is good and desirable. The fact that a group of citizens is operating a business should not disqualify them from First Amendment protections. No, corporations are not people. And no, money is not speech.
But corporations are comprised of people with rights. And if those people choose to exercise their First Amendment right to make a political statement, they will need to spend money to do so effectively. To say that the First Amendment does not apply to U.S. businesses is to say that the First Amendment does not apply to the people who form and operate them.
Likewise, few would dispute that the First Amendment protects corporations’ ability to spend money on non-political ads. In the same way that a non-political ad cannot force you to purchase a product, an ad with a political statement cannot force you to vote a certain way. All ads, including overtly political ads, are speech. And viewers retain the ability to form their own opinions of the message presented to them.
Imagine if Americans who identify as Democrats were asked how many pro-Trump ads it would take to make them a Trump supporter. “Impossible,” they would say. “What an absurd question.” In fact, they would probably be offended that you considered them incapable of independent thinking in the face of paid advocacy.
In the same way, every American voter should be angered by efforts to censor speech based on its source. Censoring corporate speech deprives Americans of the opportunity to hear certain messages and signals that such speech is bad or dangerous simply because of where it comes from.
It’s also worth noting that nearly every media organization in the country is a for-profit corporation. Every media outlet, from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal and CNN to Fox News, must spend money in order to expose people to their work. Would anyone support empowering the government to restrict the media’s ability to speak about politics? Of course not.
If corporations continue to serve as a potent source of resistance against the Trump administration, liberals may continue to embrace corporate speech. This would be a welcome development. However, support for political speech rights should not depend on agreeing with the speech taking place or disliking the politicians currently in power. But if heightened partisanship results in heightened support for the First Amendment, that’s still a win for free speech.
This post originally ran in The Hill on March 19th 2017.