Bringing back respect for free speech rights

March 14, 2010 10:53AM

Tennessee Center for Policy Research director of policy Justin Owen applauds a recent Supreme Court ruling in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that corporations and labor unions — and more importantly the individuals who make up those groups — have a First Amendment right to exercise free speech during campaign season. Effectively, corporations and unions can now advocate for the election or defeat of political candidates by spending money on items such as television commercials, Web sites and other forms of communication, as long as it is done independently and not coordinated with a political candidate. This decision is a victory for free speech that will benefit all Americans, not just a select few. The issue arose when Citizens United, a nonprofit corporation, sought to air a film about then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Despite being a nonprofit, Citizens United was prohibited from airing the film (or even advertising its very existence) under the infamous McCain-Feingold campaign finance act. Such a movie could see the light of day only if produced by a campaign committee, a political action committee, a so-called “527” or an individual. As a result, free speech was only truly free for those who fit within a certain category that Congress allowed to express an opinion. Campaign finance laws like McCain-Feingold represent little more than legalized money laundering. Those with deep pockets can and will find a way to skirt the laws and funnel their money through the right venues to influence campaigns. Unfortunately, the laws are designed in a way that makes it nearly impossible for average citizens to see exactly where the money goes and from whom it comes. In the past decade alone, billionaire George Soros has contributed more than $3.4 million to political campaigns or associated organizations that in turn spent money on elections. Does Mr. Soros have the right to spend his hard-earned money on causes in which he staunchly believes? Absolutely. Like Mr. Soros, the shareholders who make up corporations and the members who make up labor unions also have this right. To many, corporations are bloodsucking, faceless entities out to rip off the American people. In reality, however, corporations are made up of shareholders who look a great deal like the average American. Because a significant percentage of stock is held in mutual funds, many shareholders in this country are in fact middle-class citizens. Why can billionaires like George Soros legally spend millions of dollars to advance a personal agenda, but middle-class shareholders commit a crime just because they band together to speak out? Despite the “sky-is-falling” outrage by those opposed to the Supreme Court’s ruling, one should remember that the law banning corporations from spending money to campaign has not been around forever. Until fairly recently, corporations and labor unions were free to make independent campaign expenditures, yet this money made up a very small portion of the overall amount spent on campaign speech. As history tends to repeat itself, it is unlikely that corporations and unions will suddenly become the driving force behind political expenditures. Further, the Supreme Court did not strike down the federal ban on direct campaign contributions by corporations and labor unions. Going forward, corporations and unions will still be banned from contributing money directly to political candidates. Rather, they will merely be allowed to spend money on TV commercials and other types of direct advertising. By expanding the free speech of individuals who make up corporations and unions, there will certainly be more speech as a result of the ruling — but that’s a good thing. The more people weighing in on issues, the more likely we are to discover the truth behind candidates and their positions. Allowing more people to offer their viewpoint will lead to more accountability from political campaigns and more informed voters. So long as campaign expenditures and donations are made publicly available, the American people will not be hoodwinked. It is entirely possible both to protect the right of individuals to speak out for or against political candidates and to allow everyone else to follow the money. By tracking the money spent on campaign speech — be it from individuals, unions or corporations — the American people can make more informed decisions. As the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once exclaimed, “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.” Rather than allow Washington politicians to muddy campaign finance waters and censor the speech of certain groups, it’s time for us once again to trust the judgment of the American people. The Supreme Court’s ruling takes us one step closer to doing just that. Justin Owen is director of policy and general counsel of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that promotes the ideals of liberty. He can be reached at