In the narrowly-decided landmark case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled U.S. corporations have First Amendment rights equal to those of the individual. While such a decision could seem unfair, ruling otherwise would lead to greater injustice and complications regarding campaigning and freedom of speech than ever imagined.
For context, the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC originated when Citizens United, a politically conservative nonprofit organization, produced a feature-length film in 2008 titled “Hillary: the Movie,” which was highly critical of former Sen. Hillary Clinton, a Democratic presidential candidate in 2008. Citizens United wanted to distribute the film on video-on-demand services and to use cable television to put out three commercial advertisements for the film.
Citizens United was accused of violating campaign laws, including using “campaign electioneering language,” which used any public broadcasting server to promote or diminish any political candidate. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled laws that prohibited corporations from engaging in political speech were in violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. Many criticize the ruling, stating that a corporation is not a person, but facts are stubborn, and the facts of the case show that the U.S. is better off with corporations’ guaranteed right to speech.
First, it is a fair argument to be made that money equates to power in a campaign and that large organizations such as Citizens United hold more power over smaller organizations and individuals. This power is particularly consequential during campaigns when such large, powerful voices could sway a race. However, such particular circumstances do not justify a corporation being stripped of its right to take part in political narrative. More importantly, government should not have power to strip a corporation of its voice.
If the Citizens United v. FEC case did not lead to a guaranteed right to speech for corporations, government would have the ultimate right to punish corporations engaging in even the slightest of political speech, as the laws governing corporations engaging in political speech were alarmingly broad before the 2010 ruling. Chief Justice John Roberts brought up Walmart selling political-themed action figures. Under the laws prior to the Citizens United ruling, Walmart could have been punished.
To allow the censure of any political speech by corporations would, according to the Supreme Court ruling, have a massive chilling effect on American businesses, preventing them from engaging in political dialogue for fear of punishment by the government. This would prevent the U.S. from ever having a true marketplace of ideas. Furthermore, a ruling allowing for the censure of corporations from political speech would create a hierarchy of free speech in which different groups and individuals would have different amounts of free speech guaranteed, inevitably infringing on the First Amendment based on the group size of those engaging in political dialogue.
Since many of those who do not support the Citizens United v. FEC ruling fall to the political left, imagine for a minute if the court ruling did fall in your favor and President Donald Trump still managed to get elected president. Under such a ruling, nothing would stop Trump from signing an executive order prohibiting media companies from engaging in any speech that would fall under the scope of “campaign electioneering,” which is a very broad label. Certainly this power would be used to squash political enemies of any incumbent political figure, and certainly this does not sound like justice.
Brett Landry is a 20-year-old mass communication senior from Bourg, Louisiana.