Spirited Debate on Controversial Supreme Court Decision

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Two insightful, forceful, and persuasive advocates defended opposing sides of a nuanced and important free speech issue at a BookExpo America debate sponsored by the American Booksellers Association for Free Expression (ABFFE), the Association of American Publishers’ (AAP) Freedom to Read Committee, and the Freedom to Read Foundation. The panel focused on the possible effects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s January decision in the Citizens United case, which ruled that under the First Amendment there could not be limits on the amount of money that corporations could spend in political campaigns.

The hour-long program, entitled “Free Speech for Corporations?” featured panelists Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group, and Ira Glasser, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. The debate was moderated by former Congressman Tom Allen, AAP president and chief executive officer, who characterized Citizens United as “a very important case with profound implications for our democracy.”

Calling the Supreme Court’s 5 - 4 decision in Citizens United “a disastrous ruling,” Public Citizen’s Weissman argued that on both the federal and the state level “a bad situation [would become] far worse,” as corporations increased their political spending, and achieved more political clout. Regarding the free speech rights of corporations, he contended that “corporations and people are different,” adding that a healthy democracy should strive for “rule by people rather than rule by corporations.”

Citing the ruling’s holding that it was important for “minorities to espouse their opinions,” Weissman questioned whether giant petroleum or pharmaceutical corporations currently faced daunting obstacles in presenting their political arguments. “This ‘oppressed minority’ is Exxon,” he said, noting that corporate revenues dwarfed the current campaign spending levels.

Predicting that “there will be much more corporate money in general” in campaign ads, Weissman said that corporations would begin targeting candidates for defeat in both federal and state elections, and that there would be a dangerous chilling effect on elected officials, who will be reluctant to speak out on issues opposed by politically active corporations. “You don’t have to be the victim ... to see what happens when you take a stand against the interests of corporations.”

In responding to Weissman’s arguments, Glasser cautioned that proponents of limiting First Amendment rights “always come at you with fears,” but he countered that “fears of what might happen are not to be given great weight.” Pointing out that the decision only affects political spending within the final 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election, Glasser also stressed that of the six million corporations in the U.S. approximately 90 percent had revenues of less than $5 million. “You’re talking about a lot more than pharmaceutical” companies, he said, contending that the ruling circumscribes the First Amendment rights of many organizations “that are not even part of the problem,” including the ACLU, NAACP, and Planned Parenthood.

Arguing that “this is sheer, dangerous nonsense” that corporations have no rights, Glasser said that the ability of organizations to raise enough money to question and challenge government was essential to the democratic process. Citing two instances where the ACLU had to go to court to run ads criticizing presidential policies, Glasser said, “if the First Amendment is meant to do anything … it’s to protect us against government attempts to silence us when we attempt to criticize the president.”

Looking ahead, Weissman said that he believed that public funding for political candidates is an essential remedy to the problems of the undue influence of unbridled corporate political spending. He also contended that it was important to pass a constitutional amendment that made clear that First Amendment rights belong to people and the press, not to for-profit corporations, adding that “there’s just no other way” to rectify the damage of the decision. Glasser vigorously countered that “it is the dumbest, stupidest thing” conceivable to begin a constitutional amendment process, which would open First Amendment-related debate in state legislatures, where current protections, he argued, could very likely be lost.