On November 3rd, voters will decide which party will control the Senate and the House of Representatives and who the next president will be. Growing on the horizon is likely the biggest wave of political ads to ever flood our media. Because the Supreme Court restored their free speech rights, “people,” like corporations and labor unions, can now spend as much money as they want to try to convince us who to vote for.
With its 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court overruled several legal precedents and invalidated certain state and federal laws restricting how much corporations and unions could spend from their own treasuries on political ads.
“Any other course would prolong the substantial, nationwide chilling effect caused by section 441b’s corporate expenditure ban,” said the conservative majority opinion of the court about why it invalidated section 441b of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.
Now all of the expensive corporate-sponsored free speech that has been missing from the free marketplace of ideas – considered necessary to sustain a healthy democracy – has been un-chilled by the Supreme Court for our enlightenment.
For example, many corporations in the oil, coal, gas and auto industries would like you to believe that global warming is not happening or that human activity has not contriuted. They feel overburdened with laws regulating things like where they can drill for oil, how much pollution they can pump into the air, or how much gas mileage cars and trucks should get.
As we approach this next election, corporations will spend obscene amounts of money through really big Political Action Committees, called super PACs, to convince you to vote for politicians who will put corporate profit interests first. Corporations will outspend those who advocate for laws that protect our air, water and food supply and the environment, as well as laws to protect us from fraud in the financial sector.
Corporations and labor unions still can’t contribute directly to a candidate’s campaign. They contribute through a PAC, which is a legally registered advocacy group that raises and spends money to support or oppose the election of a candidate. Candidates can’t tell them what to say or what not to say, but most candidates tend to have cozy relationships with the PACs that support them.
We have recently seen signs of this triumph of free speech with the flood of super PAC attack ads that helped Mitt Romney win the Florida Republican primary. According to an ABC News report the Romney supporting super PAC, Restore Our Future, spent $8.5 million on mostly negative TV attack ads. The super PAC Winning our Future, that supported second-place finisher Newt Gingrich, spent $2.2 million.
Millions of those dollars came right out of the treasuries of corporations, such as private investment firm Rooney Holdings Inc. and oil and gas company Oxbow Carbon LLC.
Anticipating the wave of conservative super PAC money he will be up against this fall, President Obama recently announced he will speak before the Priorities USA super PAC that supports him. This is a reversal of his previous policy of trying to keep his campaign distant from PACs.
Before the Citizens United decision, corporations and unions were banned by the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act from using their general treasury funds to broadcast political ads within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary election. A lower court ruled that Citizens United was banned from distributing a movie critical of Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign, because it would violate the BCRA. Citizens United is a non-profit corporation that produces documentaries and sponsors ads to support conservative causes and candidates.
The five conservative justices on the Supreme Court decided this provision of the BCRA violated the First Amendment free speech rights of corporations and unions. They argued we should not discriminate against corporations just because they can’t vote or don’t have a pulse.
“The Court has thus rejected the argument that political speech of corporations or other associations should be treated differently under the First Amendment simply because such associations are not ‘natural persons,'” stated the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Citizens of the United States have the right to speak from their soap boxes, or buy TV ads for their voices to be heard in the free marketplace of ideas during political elections. But most of us can’t afford to buy TV ads. With their special ability to amass enormous amounts of wealth, corporations now have a lopsided advantage to advance their interests.
So next time you see a corporation, go give it a hug and congratulate it for being a person too. And thank the Supreme Court for making our country a better place by letting corporations have the influence on the outcome of our elections they rightfully deserve.