Do corporations have First Amendment rights?
Jan. 19, 2012
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
With the Republican primaries under way, and national elections about to start heating up across the country, a new player is getting actively involved in elections: corporations.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a federal ban on spending by corporations and unions in federal elections was unconstitutional. It said corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals. The ruling overturned a provision of the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 that targeted campaign finance reform.
In the 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued in the majority opinion that “we have long since held that corporations are covered by the First Amendment.”
“If the First Amendment has any force,” Kennedy wrote, “it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”
The ruling does not allow corporations to donate money directly to individual candidates but it does allow them to run their own ads advocating for or against candidates or ballot initiatives. This has been seen in the early Republican primaries and caucuses where independent political action committees (PACs), flush with corporate donations, ran attack ads on candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination.
The largest of the PACs, called Restore Our Future, supports former Gov. Mitt Romney, and it spent the most of all the PACs. Restore Our Future is run by Carl Forti, Romney’s political director during his 2008 presidential nomination bid. It is a so-called super PAC, which means it is allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts provided all donations and expenditures are reported publicly. These independent organizations are a direct result of the Citizens United ruling.
Romney is not alone. All the major candidates have a super PAC working on their behalf, spending sometimes millions to advocate for them or attack a rival.
Supporters of the Supreme Court ruling argue that the decision allows for more competition. CNN senior political contributor Ed Rollins wrote in a 2010 editorial, “The floodgates for money will obviously be opened by the court’s decision and that may give good candidates the opportunity to compete against incumbents who have tremendous government resources that help them run year-round campaigns on taxpayer dollars.”
But not everyone was happy with the ruling. President Barack Obama said the ruling is “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
Recently in Montana, the state’s Supreme Court issued a ruling that went against the Citizens United decision. The Montana Supreme Court upheld a 1912 state law that forbid corporations from directly contributing to political campaigns in state elections. Justice James Nelson, who reluctantly dissented, wrote: “Corporations are not persons. Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people — human beings — to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government.”
What do you think?
Should corporations and unions be allowed to contribute unlimited amounts of money to influence elections? Does this help the electoral process or hinder it? Do corporations have free speech rights, too? Do you think corporate spending in campaigns will help an individual’s voice or hurt? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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