What is America’s greatest contribution to civilization? I believe it to be the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is magnificent in its simplicity: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
That’s it. When Americans use the cliché “It’s a free country,” this is what they mean. The government can’t tell us how to worship or dictate what we can and cannot say or write, nor can it muzzle our protests about its actions. This is the soil that nurtures the seeds of representative democracy.
In January the Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that extended the right of free speech in political campaigns to corporations and labor unions. In doing so, it overturned existing precedents, wiping out several decades of congressional attempts to limit the influence of money on elections, including explicit prohibitions on corporate advocacy on behalf of, or in opposition to, individual candidates. The 5–4 decision does leave in place prohibitions on direct corporate contributions to political campaigns, but it allows unlimited independent expenditures that enable corporations and unions to advocate for or against the election of a specific candidate. The only restriction on corporate and union involvement is that they may not coordinate their expenditures with campaigns, a restriction that is almost impossible to police unless somebody squeals.
No existing jurisprudence compelled the court to rule as it did. Indeed, the majority overruled two cases, one that upheld the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which was decided just seven years ago, and another that upheld restrictions on expenditures, which was decided in 1990. The majority relied on previous decisions that declared corporations to be persons and infused them with the right to act as persons in political campaigns. But the political personhood of corporations is a fiction. Corporations cannot vote. They cannot hold office. There is no reason why they should be treated as persons when it comes to contributing money. As the court’s fourth chief justice, John Marshall, said in the famous 1819 case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, “A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law.” “We the people” it’s not.
The majority opinion reeks of cynicism. Masquerading as defenders of the First Amendment, the justices flirt with