Citizens United: A Distortion of Free Speech

In 2010, in the now infamous case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court declared that unlimited corporate and union spending on political campaign messaging is free speech and that corporations are people. Though (as I will try to show) the implications of this decision are particularly wide reaching, let’s not forget that the Supreme Court has acknowledged ‘corporate personhood’ before inTrustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward and upheld it in Pembina Consolidated Silver Mining Co. v. Pennsylvania in 1888. Nonetheless, Citizens United represents a more radical step in the blurring legal distinction between a person and a corporation since it explicitly grants the right to free speech protected by the first amendment to corporations. 

Citizens United first came out to play in the 2012 elections, and Obama’s re-election despite Romney’s greater amount of financial support has convinced many that the doctrine of money as free speech does not impede democracy and does not lead the US even further into the depths of oligarchic plutocracy. These people have been duped. I present to you a closer examination of Citizens United’s effects in the 2012 election, especially locally, an analysis of the future potential Citizens United holds, and a reflection about the decision’s historical context. 

One prime example of the role of corporate money in local elections is in the failing of Proposition 37 (which would mandate the labelling of GMO foods) in California. According to the Cornucopia Institute, $46million was spent fighting Prop 37 by big agribusinesses including Monsanto (over $8million), Pepsico brands such as Izze and Naked (nearly $2.5million), and General Mills ($1.2million). Meanwhile, smaller corporations supporting Prop 37 spent only $9million, including $100,000 from Clif Bar, $60,000 from Annie’s, and $1.5million from the Organic Consumers Association. The Institute states that, “Such labeling is required throughout Europe, and by scores of other countries worldwide. In the US, polls indicate that over 90% of citizens support labelling and the right to choose if they have not been deluged by misleading advertisements paid for by biotechnology corporations.” The failing of Prop 37 is just one example of how corporate money through misleading advertisements can lead populations to vote against their own personal interest. 

Another example of corporate money at play is in the ongoing “Right-to-Work” campaign, waged state-by-state through non-profit organizations such as the National Right to Work Committee and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Both these groups have budgets largely composed of corporate donations, from companies such as Comcast and Walmart, and act as anti-union, anti-worker lobbyists. Their expensive media campaign has been so successful in convincing workers to vote against their own interests that seventeen states have enacted right-to-work laws (that aren’t in the state constitutions). The National Right to Work Foundation’s press releases between 2003 and 2005 demonstrate no affinity towards improving conditions for workers, and in many right-to-work states worker conditions have worsened. These lobbying non-profits have acted in elections much the way that super PACs can. 

Jeff Clements, who lectured at Dartmouth in November and is the co-founder of Free Speech for People, testified that the fiscal top .5% of the population accounted for 80% of campaign donations. The growth of corporate power in politics through the vehicle of money is dangerous – it effectively disenfranchises huge swaths of the population, eligible to vote themselves, by inundating them with persuasive inaccurate advertisement. A democracy is rule by the people, not rule by a tiny subset of the people (oligarchy) who have the money to purchase the passing of particular laws or election of particular politicians (plutocracy). Clements also testifies that the amount of money corporations invested in these 2012 elections was tiny compared to what they could have invested—that 2012 was a kind of ‘test run.’ Observing the effects of corporate money in cases like Prop 37, corporations are certainly more likely invest even greater amounts of money in the future. It is worth at least considering that 2012 was just the beginning. 

Perhaps most concerning about Citizens United’s future potential is its demonstration of a tendency towards huge inequality of the ability to produce “free speech” coupled with the lack of accountability that this type of speech requires. Already, even in this trial-run election, “we’re seeing historic spending levels spurred by outside groups dominated by a small number of individuals and organizations making exceptional contributions,” says Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics. She continues, “fewer than 40 donors to outside groups have given more than $200 million ... – while at least 350,000 people were needed to reach the $71million in small donations to the Romney Campaign.” This narrow selection of influential donors coupled with the anonymity afforded by super PACs not only allows for rule by the few—granting the wealthy a disproportionate ability to influence elections and policy—but also keeps the sources secret, eaving average American voters unable to account for credibility. 

Americans have always been enthusiastic about the free hand of the market, the primacy of profit, the rule of the contract, the belief that if one works hard one will be financially successful, even rich. As John Steinbeck penned it, the problem with poor Americans is that “they don’t believe they’re poor, but rather temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” This ideology actually doesn’t make sense for the vast majority of Americans, who aren’t rich and haven’t benefited from the corporate plutocracy. It is truly astounding that so many Americans continue to invest in ideologies and politics that do not benefit them and stand very little chance of doing so in the future. And unfortunately with the increasingly pervasive nature of money in our politics, this insidious cycle will only reinforce itself.