Many people have denounced the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. But the ruling makes a fair amount of sense in theory.
In Citizens United, the court held that organizations like corporations and labor unions have a right of free speech that includes political speech, campaign ads, and electioneering communications, as well as the money that funds that speech.
The court reasoned that speech is essential to democracy. People need information to make meaningful choices. Speech – communication in all its forms – is the way that people share information, become knowledgeable, and decide which politicians and policies to support and which to oppose.
It takes money to get the word out. Effective communication requires money. So that money is essential to speech and speech can be regulated, controlled and restricted by regulating money. Government regulation of political speech is suspect because government has a bias in favor of perpetuating itself and its policies, and against those who challenge them.
All speakers, whether they be individuals or organizations, are entitled to use the money that they make to fund the speech that they want. The possibility that money can be used to corrupt government as opposed to communicate is not a reason to regulate corporate speech, because there is no evidence that corporate money corrupts any more than any other type of money.
In our free-market economy, some people have more money than others. The amount of money that a person has is no guarantee that they are smart or that what they have to say is wise or that the political opinions that they express are popular. Yet that money gives them the wherewithal to promote their political views more than those of others who are less wealthy.
It may seem undemocratic that some people have more ability to speak than others. But it is inevitable in a free society, because people are different. If they are free, then some will have more ability to speak than others. Because of their celebrity, their ideas, their eloquence, their charisma – or their money.
In this regard, there is little difference between wealthy people and corporations. Indeed, some people – small business owners and sole proprietors, for example – are synonymous with corporations, such as S corporations. Beyond that, some people and corporations have more money than others and that money gives them more ability to speak politically.
Arguably, publicly owned corporations are more democratic than wealthy individuals when it comes to political speech. Corporations are economic democracies. They are owned by people. Stockholders can, if they have the votes, influence a corporation’s policy, including its communication policy. That’s more democratic than some wealthy individuals’ political communication policy.
Corporations have a long association with our country. Stock companies were instrumental in its creation. They provided the capital for colonists. They allowed merchants and more regular people to do what previously only monarchs could. These days, there are even non-profit corporations primarily devoted to politics, called social welfare organizations.
In a democracy, ultimately, the people govern themselves by making choices in the marketplace of ideas, between candidates in campaigns, and at the polls on Election Day. In that process, government control of speech is suspect, and more speech is better than less speech, even if it comes from corporations.