Sunday, January 24, 2010

Court ruling upheld the Constitution

Politics as Usual by Jim Baron

There is a lot of crying over the U.S. Supreme Court decision last week in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission but 1) it should have come as a surprise to no one and 2) it was correctly decided.

It should have come as no surprise because the high court took the unusual step of inviting the dispute about whether corporations and unions should be able to spend money directly from their treasuries to advocate for or against a candidate or issue during an election. The case started as a dispute about whether an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary called “Hillary: The Movie” should be allowed to be offered in an on-demand format on a cable television service immediately before the 2008 primaries in some cities.
But when it went to the Supreme Court, the justices asked for argument on the larger issues of corporations and unions spending money directly on electioneering. You could almost see the conservative justices licking their chops over the prospect of ruling on that matter.
But the fact is, they ruled correctly. They upheld the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Yes, the decision is troublesome and it will exacerbate the problem of money skewing the election process. And, yes, it will benefit Big Oil and Big Pharma and Big Banking, not to mention the Republican Party those entities seem to favor, but that can’t be helped. As constitutional scholar Bill Belichick, might say, the First Amendment is what it is.
And it says that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. No law means, well, no law. Not even a well-meaning one intended to reduce the influence of money in politics.
You can’t have the government deciding what can and can’t be said during an election campaign, at what point it can or can’t be said or who can or can’t say it. Government decisions are made by people who run in elections.
Of course the incumbents, who are the ones making the rules, are going to try to stifle any voices that may try to oppose them. That’s why laws like this that limit political speech during an election period get passed. It’s always easier to play a game when you are the house, and you wrote the rulebook.
I understand the problem: Big, bad corporations, and perhaps even those evil unions, can spend millions to buy an election for the candidate they support. Or perhaps they could put those millions toward a challenger of some incumbent who won’t do their bidding.
They could even wield the mere threat of using those millions to help a challenger in order to bring a recalcitrant pol to heel, thus getting their way and keeping their millions. All of this already happens now, of course, but the Supreme Court’s ruling last week will up the ante by a couple of orders of magnitude.
We can not let that be used as a pretense for censoring political speech that we might not like. The antidote to that is more speech. Granted, good government groups and others who might want to counter the messages from corporations and unions don’t always have millions to drop on counter-ad campaigns, but they have ways to get their message out. That’s one of the services the media generally provides free of charge.
What the Supreme Court’s decision didn’t do, and I have seen this confused in some media reports, is that it does not allow corporations and unions to contribute directly to candidates’ campaigns. That is still illegal, although Common Cause of R.I. executive director John Marion issued a press release worrying that this would start us sliding down a slippery slope in that direction. As he cautioned, we should remain vigilant against attempts to undermine that prohibition.
But as long as the law is going to consider corporations (I don’t want to keep being redundant over and over again, so when I say corporations, understand it to mean “and unions,” as well; it will save space) as having most of the same rights as persons, then you can’t restrict their freedom to speak and put forth their ideas and opinions, even — no, make that especially — during an election campaign. Yeah, I’m squeamish about giving corporate entities the same rights as citizens, but one fight at a time.
What Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision means is more work — more work for you, and more work for me and my colleagues in the media.
The work for you is to pay attention and give some thought to the things you are seeing in newspaper ads and hearing in TV and radio commercials. You will have to read or listen to the message and think about what the motive of the person saying it might be, what is in it for them, or whose ox are they trying to gore and why. You can’t allow yourself to be swayed by the clever public relations and propaganda tricks they are going to employ. It would help to background yourself with facts from newspaper stories so you can apply those facts to the assertions being made in the ads.
For me and my colleagues in the media it is going to mean more work because we are going to have to dig to find out, who is actually behind the ads you are seeing in the paper and on TV. They are not going to say “this ad on behalf of the senator who has been a shill for the banks and financial institutions is brought to you by Morgan Stanley and AIG.” No, they are going to be presented by “Concerned Citizens for Liberty, Mom and Apple Pie.” It’s going to be up to us to find out, and tell you, just who those concerned citizens are, how much money they are laying out and what their agenda is. (Full disclosure: this is also going to mean more work for me and my colleagues in the media because the companies we work for are going to be rolling in dough from those millions the corporations and unions will be spending on advertising.)
The dire warnings that this decision is going to turn the United States, and the individual states, into even more of a corporatocracy than they already are can only come true if you don’t pay attention and think critically about who you are going to vote for and why and instead allow yourself to be buffaloed by some slick ad campaign.
Self-government takes some work. If you allow yourself to get suckered, don’t blame the Supreme Court or the First Amendment.

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