George Will wrote a strong column in the Washington Post the other day arguing that the Democratic Party appears to want to regulate more than just our economy. It wants to regulate our speech, too. Will’s look at the opposition to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is timely, and the potential rollback of the ruling could have serious consequences for freedom of expression in this country.
From the point-of-view of the decision’s supporters, Will writes, “The decision simply recognized that Americans do not forfeit their First Amendment rights when they come together in incorporated entities to magnify their voices by speaking collectively. ” But the opponents of that decision, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, to name two prominent ones, have argued–falsely, it seems to me–that corporations are not persons. They are when it comes to necessary collective action and long-term planning, so that businesses like insurance companies and hospitals can survive and serve us generation after generation.* They, too, as “artificial persons,” are part of the democracy of this country, and the flesh-and-blood persons who give life to those artificial persons through their daily work have never been thought of as yielding any of their rights as citizens simply by working for them.
Sanders’ and Warren’s opposition is based upon the unregulated freedom of such corporate groups to spend money on political issues, but since political ideas and participation in the civic process always involve freedom of speech and expression, Will sees a broader threat looming than just a restriction on how citizens may spend money. We need corporations–big ones, small ones, even multinational ones–in order to generate the very wealth that social Democrats like Sanders are so eager to redistribute. Those corporations need to be free to spend–and thereby speak–on the issues that concern them, even if their collective opinions don’t happen to be popular. Regulate their spending, and you’ll be regulating their speech.
Just last night, in an interview on Bloomberg, Sanders once again voiced his opposition to Citizens United. His is a principled stand, but a misguided one not in harmony with over two hundred years of business law and constitutional law in this country.
[*One of the bookish examples I was thinking of at the marked point of this post was a passage in Asimov’s short story, “The Bicentennial Man.” Andrew the robot’s quest to become a man rather than a machine takes centuries as the people around him die, but, as Asimov writes, the law firm of Feingold and Charney lived, “for a corporation does not die any more than a robot does. The firm had its directions and it followed them soullessly,” preserving both Andrew’s accumulated wealth and his standing to pursue his legal case to be proclaimed a human in the courts. It’s Feingold and Charney’s recognized status as an “artificial person” despite its corporate structure that ensures its longevity and its ability to serve Andrew’s needs.]