Citizens United, For and Against Free Speech

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Citizens United, For and Against Free Speech

The Atlantic – When Republicans controlled Congress in the 1990s, liberals fought hard to block a series of constitutional amendments demanded by conservatives, including provisions allowing official school prayer and prohibiting flag burning that would have effectively repealed core First Amendment freedoms. These days, with Democrats at least nominally in control, some prominent liberals are on the other side, fighting to repeal the First Amendment — in the wake of the Citizens United decision. Advocacy groups (like MoveOn and People for the American Way) and prominent Democrats (including Senators John Kerry and Chris Dodd) have announced their support for a constitutional amendment depriving corporations of political speech rights.

Dodd and Kerry have strong civil liberties records, and no one can accuse them of not understanding or respecting First Amendment freedoms, in general. But a lot of liberal Democrats and progressives have reacted to Citizens United with predictable partisan fury and fear, considering the political benefits it's expected to confer upon Republicans. It seems safe to say they will not succeed in passing a constitutional amendment, which requires a 2/3 vote in the House and Senate and will not garner unanimous Democratic support, much less the support of Republicans. (It's worth noting, and cheering, campaign finance reform champion Russ Feingold's opposition to a constitutional amendment.)

Legislative proposals limiting or clarifying corporate speech rights will and should be taken seriously (even though the prospects of passing any major legislation about anything seem slim.) Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio has introduced a bill that would require shareholder approval of corporate political expenditures, disclosure of sponsorship, and a ban on electioneering by foreign corporations. Bills barring federal contractors from electioneering also seem likely. The Court ruled out none of these provisions in Citizens United, and reasonable civil libertarians will differ over the reasonableness of the burdens they impose on corporate speech. But a reasoned debate about appropriate, constitutional regulations of corporate electioneering requires correcting misconceptions about what the Citizens United ruling entailed; it also requires a acknowledging the relationship between money and speech.

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