Amendment to undo Citizens United won’t do

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A constitutional amendment proposed by congressional Democrats to limit again how much corporations can spend for or against candidates in federal elections is flawed. It attacks one alleged evil — possible electoral and government corruption — with another that runs roughshod over the First Amendment.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., as reported by The Hill, proposed an amendment yesterday that would overturn a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision removing barriers to corporations’ spending their own money, without limit, to campaign for or against a candidate for federal office.

The phrase “unlimited funds,” combined with the idea of corporations’ enjoying free-speech rights, has scared the heck out of a lot of Americans, including many who ordinarily line up to keep the government’s hands off free expression.

In its Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010, the Supreme Court held 5-4 that it was a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech for the government to forbid or limit corporate funding of political broadcasts for or against individual candidates. The ruling effectively gutted much of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law that was aimed at blunting the impact of such spending in elections.

Few likely would debate the motive that Conyers and Edwards say is behind the proposed amendment: fair elections, honest government. But good intentions don’t justify ignoring a basic concept that the Supreme Court majority pointed out in its ruling: Nothing in the First Amendment provides for “more or less” free-speech protection depending on who is speaking.

Besides, corporations — and likely unions, as well — are essentially groups of people who have assembled for a common purpose. That includes for this discussion using their combined resources effectively to support or oppose candidates who will, in their view, do the right things.

Do we really want Congress to have the power to exclude certain groups from participating in political speech? Let’s not forget that although corporations and unions are different in reality, if not law, from individual people, they represent collections of individuals with legitimate interests.

As the Supreme Court held last year, First Amendment protections are strongest for political speech — and being an effective speaker in the marketplace of ideas should not disqualify you from them.

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