January 16, 2012. This Saturday, January 21, will mark the second anniversary of the infamous Citizens United decision. For those of you who have been living under a rock, Citizens United struck down campaign finance laws and held that the government could not regulate independent expenditures on political speech by corporations and unions. Backlash has been fierce. There are protests planned for the anniversary, and I expect to hear the usual refrains: Corporations aren't people. Money isn't speech. And so forth.
I think there are some problems with Citizens United and excessive corporate expenditures during elections. But I want to push back against the idea that corporations don't deserve free speech rights at all.
Today, some of the most important speech in America comes from corporations. We certainly wouldn't want to give the government the power to ban the New York Times, but the New York Times Company is a corporation. We wouldn't want to give the government the power to ban Michael Moore movies. But Michael Moore, certainly no fan of corporate power, produces his movies through a corporation. We wouldn't want to give government the power to ban advertisements for contraceptives. But contraceptives are made by corporations.
There are various amendments floating around now that would overturn Citizens United. Fair enough. But I'd caution against any attempt to roll back corporate speech rights in general. For better or worse, corporations are a huge part of the free speech landscape in America. Pushing them out entirely would have unintended consequences.