RALEIGH — Democrats in Washington want to strip the NAACP, the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood, and other groups of their rights to speak, assemble, and petition government for redress of grievances. Republicans in Washington want to stop the Democrats from doing so.
In its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rights of corporate entities to engage directly in the political process by conducting independent expenditures to advocate the election or defeat of candidates. Later that same year, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in the Speechnow case that the government cannot prohibit or limit the ability of corporate entities to obtain donations to conduct such independent expenditures.
Ever since, much of the Left has seethed with anger. Liberal groups have called for the impeachment of conservative Supreme Court justices and for amending the U.S. Constitution to prevent corporations from claiming the same First Amendment rights as individuals.
Take another look at my previous paragraph. I used the collective noun “Left” to describe a political movement of individuals and the term “liberal groups” to describe organizations through which individuals express their views and take political action. Even if you strongly disagreed with what I wrote, did you have any trouble understanding my meaning?
At its core, the current debate about Citizens United and related cases comes down to a curious inability of some politicians, commentators, and activists to apply logical reasoning and the English language in a consistent fashion. A corporation — be it a for-profit firm, a nonprofit advocacy group, a church, or a think tank — is a bundle of contracts. It cannot speak, write, publish, broadcast, or walk down the street.
To say that a corporation does anything is really to say that a group of individuals, organized in some mutually agreeable fashion, is taking that action. Strictly speaking, The New York Times has never published anything. It is a stack of legal documents. The individuals who own the Times have employed other individuals to report, write, and print the Times, using revenue derived from still other individuals who sell ads or collect subscription fees. Similarly, Duke Energy didn’t store coal ash next to the Dan River, resulting in a spill. The NAACP didn’t help create the Moral Monday movement. The Seattle Seahawks didn’t win the Super Bowl. Individual human beings associated with these corporate entities actually took these actions.
But when we use the names of these corporations to describe the actions of the people involved, no one seems to misunderstand. Why is it so hard to apply the same consistent principle to political action?
Virtually all groups that engage in politics are incorporated. So are most media companies and interest groups. The First Amendment doesn’t say individuals retain their free speech rights if they form some associations but not others. The News & Observer of Raleigh has precisely the same rights under the constitution as any other association of individuals. That’s why the current movement by some Senate Democrats to amend the constitution to strip associations of their rights contains an exception for media companies (not clearly defined) that would otherwise lose their protection. But why don’t groups like the NAACP, the Sierra Club, the Heritage Foundation, or the National Rifle Association deserve the same protections of their rights? And if they do deserve such protections, why don’t for-profit companies whose owners and employees also have opinions about how public policy affects their industry, the business climate as a whole, and the communities in which they reside?
When all is said and done, the post-Citizens United push to amend the U.S. Constitution is a clearly partisan attempt by Senate Democrats and their allies to shut their critics up. Those who profess a belief in freedom of speech while playing along with this nonsense are acting recklessly and shamefully.
Fortunately, freedom has plenty of friends. Harry Reid and his flying monkeys aren’t going to prevail. What remains unclear is how many previously respectable liberals are going to destroy their reputations in the process.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.