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Money speaks volumes

February 5, 2010
By all accounts, there are two great enduring institutions in America: free speech and capitalism. But the intersection of the two can have disastrous results. This reality gripped the nation last month when the Supreme Court decided to lift all limits concerning amount of money corporations and unions can spend and the proximity to the election they can broadcast issue advertisements in the case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (FEC).

That unlimited corporate money can now be channeled through political action committees struck some as detrimental to democracy - but according to the Supreme Court, it is just the opposite. In a 5-4 decision, Supreme Court asserted that the First Amendment protects not only the free speech of individuals but of corporations and unions. In this case, campaign contributions are the speech (and with corporations, that means millions upon millions of dollars of speech).

On Jan. 21, America saw a reversal of 20 years of congressional regulation of campaign finance that has spanned the 1990 decision Austin vs. Michigan to the famous McCain-Feingold laws of 2002. There has been a precedent for campaign finance regulation since more than a century ago, yet Citizens United vs. FEC threatens to leave them all in the dust.

Such a blunt ruling signals a failure on the part of the Supreme Court to perform its main duty, which is to interpret the Constitution. Justice Stevens hit the nail on the head when he said, in the decision's dissent, "The court operates with a sledgehammer, not a scalpel." In addition to ignoring the immediate historical context, the decision is blind to the original purpose of the First Amendment (as well as the rest of the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment), which was to guarantee Americans rights essential to preserving their autonomy in the wake of an oppressive monarchal mother government.

There is no more King George, but there is AIG, Lehman Brothers and the rest of Wall Street. If any force has characterized the past few years in national current events, it has been the overwhelming weight of large corporations in our society. As of late, their influence has permeated the government to an uncomfortable degree. The banks we were forced to bail out in the recession crisis stand testament to this relationship between the public and private sectors, several months and hundreds of billion dollars later. Some commentators have suggested members of Congress start attaching brand logos to their suit jackets like NASCAR drivers (so everyone can know for whom they are playing). The Citizens United decision is a powerful blow to the integrity of our political system, already making its way from a democracy to a plutocracy.

Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that the decision has damaged, rather than upheld the First Amendment. Now that corporations can donate essentially without regulation, they are bound to hold disproportionate influence in elections, suppressing the will of a much broader electorate by diminishing the ideologically motivated small contributions of individuals. The First Amendment was created with the intent to first and foremost protect the free speech of the otherwise powerless individual within a democracy. Constitutionally, this decision is highly illogical.

All corporations in the U.S. are constitutionally free entities with the attendant rights of the First Amendment, but some are more "free" than others when money does the talking for them. By extending "speech" to some of the very corporations that our government has just spent billions of taxpayer dollars to bail out, we will drown out the voices of citizens who must speak with their votes.