Today marks the four year anniversary of arguably the most controversial Supreme Court ruling of the last decade. On January 22nd 2010, in a 5 to 4 decision, the Court struck down a provision of 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, popularly known as McCain-Feingold after its two principal Senate co-sponsors, which mandated the carte blanche prohibition on corporations and unions financing independent political advertising 30 days before primary and general elections.
Right after the ruling was announced, it’s fairly safe to say that the left in America went bat shit crazy. They turned a decision that should have been praised as the greatest pro-free speech decision since New York Times v. Sullivan into “our Dred Scott,” as Keith Olbermann infamously put it, referring to the 1850’s Supreme Court decision that held upheld the forced returning of a runaway slave (that’s right, Citizens United is akin to slavery!).
In reality, Citizens United held that every American has the exact same rights as super wealthy individuals and multinational media corporations to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for the purpose of independent political speech and association.
Pre-Citizens United, a billionaire like T. Boone Pickens could take out a multi-million dollar ad buy to promote his energy plan, but any group of citizens who lacked such resources were banned from coming together to pool resources to express themselves under one banner.
Opponents of spending money on First Amendment-protected speech shrieked that now our elections would be “bought” by “the highest bidder” and mocked those who said “money is speech.” First of all, let’s never forget that voters, not contributors, determine who wins elections. Ideally, the candidate as well as independent backers should have full freedoms to raise and spend as much as they want to on trying to persuade (not “buy”) support among the voters (and his opponents are equally free to do the same), and then they vote. Period.
Second, while, true, money itself isn’t “speech,” it cannot be denied that money enables speech and by restricting the amount of money citizens can either raise and spend themselves, or give to others, for the purposes of speaking, you are engaging in de facto censorship.
Super PACs, which resulted from a later DC Court ruling that allowed for corporations and unions to raise unlimited amounts as well as spend, and activist nonprofits, have allowed for more speech and more competitive elections by allowing for more sources of money to go to more sources of speech, leading to a more informed electorate and a freer society over all.
So three cheers for Citizens United! Three cheers for free speech!
(P.S. Here is a fantastic short little video put out by the pro-First Amendment Center for Competitive Politics about all the things the anti-free speech media and activists don’t want you to know about Citizens United v. FEC)