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Jan 22 / Jonathan

What the Supreme Court got right

Glenn Greenwald, thoughtful as always.

What the Supreme Court got right

The Supreme Court yesterday, in a 5-4 decision, declared unconstitutional (on First Amendment grounds) campaign finance regulations which restrict the ability of corporations and unions to use funds from their general treasury for “electioneering” purposes.  The case, Citizens United v. FEC, presents some very difficult free speech questions, and I’m deeply ambivalent about the court’s ruling.  There are several dubious aspects of the majority’s opinion (principally its decision to invalidate the entire campaign finance scheme rather than exercising ”judicial restraint” through a narrower holding).  Beyond that, I believe that corporate influence over our political process is easily one of the top sicknesses afflicting our political culture.  But there are also very real First Amendment interests implicated by laws which bar entities from spending money to express political viewpoints. 

I want to begin by examining several of the most common reactions among critics of this decision, none of which seems persuasive to me. …

Update: in a follow-up, Greenwald points out that, while the case was decided 5–4, all nine justices agreed on two matters: that corporations have free speech rights (the question of personhood doesn’t arise, I think, in the speech clause) and that restrictions on spending do infringe on those rights:

… To the contrary, the entire dissent — while arguing that corporations have fewer First Amendment protections than individuals — is grounded in the premise that corporations do have First Amendment free speech rights and that restrictions on the expenditure of money do burden those rights, but those free speech rights can be restricted when there’s a “compelling state interest.” In this case, the dissenters argued, such restrictions are justified by the “compelling state interest” the Government has in preventing the corrupting influence of corporate money. That’s why the extent of one’s belief in the First Amendment is outcome-determinative here. Those who want to restrict free speech always argue that there’s a compelling reason to do so (“we must ban the Communist Party because they pose a danger to the country”; “we must ban hate speech because it sparks violence and causes a climate of intimidation”; “we must ban radical Muslim websites because they provoke Terrorism”). One can have reasonable debates over the “compelling interest” question as a constitutional matter — and, as I said yesterday, I’m deeply ambivalent about the Citizens United case because that’s a hard question and I do think corporate influence is one of the greatest threats we face — but, ultimately, it’s because I don’t believe that restrictions on political speech and opinions (as opposed to other kinds of statements) can ever be justified that I agree with the majority’s ruling. There are reasonable arguments on all sides of that question. …

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