SCOTUS Follow-Up

22 Jan

Back in September, when the case was being argued, I wrote a piece on the corporate citizen-hood/free speech suit appearing before the Supreme Court. At the time, I advocated for free speech to be upheld, and it was yesterday, by the predictable 5-4 vote. Now the hand-wringing about the evils of irresponsibile corporations has begun anew. Alan is conflicted about whether its good or bad. Others are less generous, and seem to believe 2012 was reality TV. But don’t worry – the world is not ending, and this decision is more narrow than the hand wringers admit.

First, the principle. Corporations, for-profit and non-profit, special interest and business related, big and small, are just groups of people who get together for a similar purpose. Why those people should lose their collective right to free speech once they join that group is not at all clear. The specifics of this case are important: the FEC regulated a blatantly political movie 30 days out from an election, because it was political speech. If that political speech can be restricted, what else? Corporations produce books on political topics, and corporations produce “news programs” on political topics. At the moment, Newscorp (FOX) and GE (MSNBC) get their opinion out, but few others.

Second, the reality. First, and most importantly, his ruling DOES NOT ALLOW UNRESITRICTED DONATIONS TO POLTICIANS, no matter what opinion you may read to the contrary. It allows corporations to run as many TV ads as they want within 30 days of an election. Up until now, politicians and parties could only run ads during that time. Since special interests could, and can still, donate unlimited soft money to the parties, they still had the ability to advertise, but only when using the pass through. The main difference this decision may make? The “Paid for” byline at the bottom of the ads will change from DNC to Your Friendly Neighborhood Energy Companies or CSEA.

The second reality issue is that corporate money is better spent many other ways. If I am a large evil corporation that wishes to influence policy, my money is better spent lobbying a specific senator on a specific committee, rather than television advertising. This does not open the flood gates to corporate and union money in politics. Its already there, and being spent more effectively on K-street lobbying firms. 

Which leads us to the final point. Chris Smith uses yesterday’s ruling as an opportunity to advance his cause of publicly funded elections. Its a campaign that is as earnest as it is misguided and impractical. The goal itself is laudable: politicians uncorrupted by monetary influences would presumably create better policy. The best argument for this is the current presence of money and absence of statesmanlike thought. But disenfranchisement and limiting free speech are not the way to achieve this. Our free public square discourse has devolved into a shouting match. But allowing no one to speak (or everyone to whisper) is worse. There is an illiberal reflex of liberals, when confronted with choices they do not approve of (SUVs, suburbs, skipping healthcare insurance, political ads, etc), to seek to limit the choice options to only acceptable alternatives. A state funded election system creates an echo chamber and feedback loop. Money is the outside, non-governmental influence. It may be corrupting, but it is also freeing. I want outsiders, non-government groups influencing my politicians. The alternative is a self-perpetuating system moved beyond the reach of the American public to change it.

13 Responses to “SCOTUS Follow-Up”

  1. Gabe January 22, 2010 at 10:54 am #

    An organization of people is still NOT a living, breathing life form, much less individual human being. Individuals have rights, not artificial groups.

    “First, the principle. Corporations, for-profit and non-profit, special interest and business related, big and small, are just groups of people who get together for a similar purpose. Why those people should lose their collective right to free speech once they join that group is not at all clear.”

    This assumes that every member of the organization in question holds the same views and opinions. Yeah, good luck with that.

  2. Brian Castner January 22, 2010 at 12:41 pm #

    Member unanimity is not a requirement for political parties to have unlimited poltical speech. False requirement.

    • Gabe January 22, 2010 at 1:45 pm #

      Why not? According to whom?

      • Brian Castner January 22, 2010 at 2:18 pm #

        You implied every member of a corporation must have the same view for its political speech to be ligitimate. That standard doesn’t apply to either political party. Why should it to anything else?

  3. Gabe January 22, 2010 at 3:14 pm #

    A political party is never a single organization; I don’t see how you can logically use this as an example.

    • Brian Castner January 22, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

      Ok, then break the Democratic Party down into as small a piece as it exists – The Dem Party of West Seneca, or whatever. My point still holds – not everyone in the group will have the same political stance on each issue. But all this obscures my larger point – not everyone in a corporation has to agree to make the org’s political voice vaid and legal – that was true before yesterday’s ruling and afterward.

      Oh, and to your first statement – “artificial” groups certainly have rights in this country. How about workers rights in a labor union? We give groups rights all the time. This decision levels the playing field.

  4. Gabe January 22, 2010 at 4:24 pm #

    “My point still holds – not everyone in the group will have the same political stance on each issue.”

    Precisely why an organization is NOT a person. Going back to my original point…..

    • Brian Castner January 22, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

      We’re talking in circles. . . Am I taking crazy pills? Yes, a corp is not literally a single person. Can we have a more nuanced discussion than that?

      • Gabe January 22, 2010 at 7:38 pm #

        Then why should it be afforded the rights of a single person?

        See, if we can’t even pass though this basic philosophical turnstile, then there really is no solid case for complete, unbridled collective free speech without several key terms being defined.

        Leaving this an “all or nothing” deal, as the court just did, is a dangerous road I don’t think we should be traversing down. I likely agree with you most of the way on this, but on the other hand, throwing down restrictions on free speech is also a dangerous road. What exactly defines “political speech” is murky-at-best. In most cases it should be left alone. Leaving the door 95% of the way open is probably the best way to go but there needs to be some sort of regulatory leeway left in place in terms of who (and what sort of content) gets to spam purchased time on the the public airwaves. In all other cases, its up to content providers and viewers. Otherwise, the lowly biological individual gets infinitely drowned out by the “free speech” of a large organization with millions X the average person’s purchasing power.

        I found a comment on another site that pretty much sums up how I feel about giving constitutionally-mandated superpowers to artoficial organizations:
        http://www.alternet.org/rights/145323/the_bush-packed_supreme_court_thinks_corporations_are_people_too

        “A corporation is a privileged artificial entity with no soul, no conscience, and unlimited life span. It is artificial because it exists only by virtue of adjusted ink on paper and an enabling government franchise. It is privileged since its officers and owners (shareholders) are immune to legal action stemming from business mistakes, bad management, financial losses, and other reasons.

        Corporate personhood is a legal absurdity because the government, constituted by the people to serve the people’s interests, cannot logically create or empower an artificial entity with the same rights and powers as a natural person. To do so would be to establish something as great as or greater than the people who constituted the government itself. That would be like people creating a robot with godly powers. It can’t be done.”

        When I can better collect my thoughts, I’ll be presenting a nuanced explanation, via my own blog.

  5. Mike In WNY January 22, 2010 at 8:19 pm #

    “A corporation is a privileged artificial entity with no soul, no conscience, and unlimited life span. It is artificial because it exists only by virtue of adjusted ink on paper and an enabling government franchise.

    That could be the description of our nation also. However, both nations and corporations are made up of individuals with souls, etc. . .

  6. Ethan January 23, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    Gabe’s 100% right on this.

    And Brian, I would rather think the idea of, let’s say, Chinese, Indian and Brazilian companies (if not American ones) having unlimited influence on American politics would bother you immensely. This ruling clearly opens the door for that. Are you looking forward to the legislative actions of the Senators from Sinopec, Tata Steel and Banco Bradesco? Really?

    • Brian Castner January 23, 2010 at 4:23 pm #

      Funny, when I wrote the first post, you agreed with me. The link is in the beginning of this post if you don’t believe me. And second, this does not give Tata Steel “unlimited influence” on American politics. That would certainly bother me, if that were the case. As it is, the only thing that’s changed is Tata Steel can now run ads with their own name within 30 days of the election, instead of giving the money to the DNC. Whether a candidate would welcome that support, or whether it would be effective, is another story.

  7. Ethan January 24, 2010 at 8:59 pm #

    I’m conflicted on the ruling, as my previous reply shows… I tend to side with free speech, but I’m also perfectly aware of the absolutely deleterious effect corporate influence has had on our democracy, so which I have a feeling this is the “right” ruling, I am also pretty concerned with what the real outcome will be.

    I believe you’re wrong on what (little) has changed, but we’ll soon see I’m sure.

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