Last week, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. speciously defended the Supreme Court’s disastrous ruling in the 2010 Citizens United case by arguing that the ruling, which allowed unlimited independent campaign spending by corporations and unions, was not really groundbreaking at all. In fact, he said, all it did was reaffirm that corporations have free speech rights and that, without such rights, newspapers would have lost the major press freedom rulings that allowed the publication of the Pentagon Papers and made it easier for newspapers to defend themselves against libel suits in New York Times v. Sullivan.
“The question is whether speech that goes to the very heart of government should be limited to certain preferred corporations; namely, media corporations,” he said in a speech to the Federalist Society, a conservative group. “Surely the idea that the First Amendment protects only certain privileged voices should be disturbing to anybody who believes in free speech.”
But Justice Alito’s argument wrongly confuses the matter. It is not the corporate structure of media companies that makes them deserving of constitutional protection. It is their function — the vital role that the press plays in American democracy — that sets them apart. In Citizens United, by a 5-to-4 vote, the court ruled that the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, in limiting the amount that organizations could spend, severely restricted First Amendment rights. The law’s purpose and effect, according to the court, was to keep unions and most corporations from conveying facts and opinions to the public, though it exempted media corporations.
But the majority got that backward. The point of the law was to protect the news media’s freedom of speech and not the legal form that they happened to be organized under. While corporations make enormous contributions to society, they “are not actually members of it,” Justice John Paul Stevens said in his dissent. When the framers “constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind,” he noted, not that of corporations.
In New York Times v. Sullivan, in which the First Amendment was used to rein in the law of libel, the Supreme Court focused on the “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” It made almost no mention of the fact that The Times was a corporation. Nor were the free speech rights of a corporation any part of the ruling in the Pentagon Papers case.
The Citizens United majority never explained why any corporation that does not have a press function warrants the same free speech rights as a person. Neither did Justice Alito. Meanwhile, the false equivalence of money and speech put forward by Citizens United and the money it unleashed is wreaking havoc in our politics.