An old piece I wrote was just reprinted in Table Talk from The Threepenny Review. It's a whimsical account of dreams about conversations with famous people, including a bunch of presidents, General DeGaulle, Walter Cronkite, and others. The Table Talk compilation was published this week by Counterpoint. I'm in pretty fast company with other authors like Robert Reich, Mark Morris, Greil Marcus and, of course, editor Wendy Lesser.
I just published an op/ed piece on Berkeleyside, on the biggest votegetter in the election.
Here's the link: http://www.berkeleyside.com/2014/11/12/op-ed-berkeley-overrules-citizens-united/
Leakers of the World Unite
William Bennett Turner
(The scene: Late 2014, the mess hall at the federal prison in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Edward Snowden, inmate No. 14-1357, cuts the line, maneuvering to sit with Julian Assange, inmate No. 14-1359. The posted menu for the day features borscht and empanadas. Both choose peanut butter and jelly. Not having met before, they sit side by side at the metal table. The following is a transcript of their conversation, surreptitiously recorded by federal authorities and leaked to the author.)
Assange: Snowden, you idiot. You don’t understand the craft of leaking. You snitched on yourself. Like Manning. If you thought that stuff was so important you should have used WikiLeaks encryption, not talked to Greenwald, and they never would have known it was you.
Snowden: The NSA broke your encryption a long time ago. Actually, I’m amazed to see you here. How did they catch you?
Assange: I couldn’t stand to eat another empanada. I sneaked out of the [Ecuadorean] embassy to a pub, disguised as Benedict Cumberbatch. The video surveillance at the pub – it’s all over London -- picked me up when the waitress came on to me. She sounded Swedish, and I ran out without paying. A bobby stopped me and the wig fell off. You could have seen the video at the NSA if you had hung around a bit longer.
Snowden: Yeah, well, we have a lot in common: we showed Americans what their government is really up to, we hid out in weird places – try the so-called couches in the Moscow airport -- and martyrdom.
Assange: But, chump, the Espionage Act got you because you contracted with the NSA, took an oath, got paid by the government, and then betrayed your trust. You expected them to treat you like a savior? I never made any promises, had no security clearance, didn’t live in the U.S., not a citizen, and had no duty to keep anyone’s secrets. I am the Fifth Estate. When does your biopic come out?
Snowden: They haven’t decided the title yet; it’s either The Trickle or The Deluge, and they’re still dickering with Justin Timberlake (sounds like Cumberbatch) about playing me. And don’t get on your moral high horse in here. I told the people what they needed to know and the government was hiding. They didn’t need to know the names of the poor shlubs who cooperated with the U.S. in Iraq, the ones you exposed. I did it to wake people up; you did it because you could. Anyway, what, exactly, are you doing time for?
Assange: Not telling.
Snowden: I thought you were all about transparency.
Assange: The government’s, not mine. I’m the decider about who knows what about me.
Snowden: I heard they got you on the Espionage Act too.
Assange: Yeah, you nitwit, but I’m gonna win my appeal, because I’m like the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, and you’re not. You’re like Ellsberg. No publisher has ever been charged under the Act.
Snowden: If they think we’re such a danger to national security, why do they put us in a minimum security prison?
Assange: No laptops. We don’t have access to secrets anymore. We went from access to everybody’s secrets to access to none at all. We’re harmless eunuchs. Maybe we could get a laptop smuggled in in a cake; instead of a file, we’d have files. Hey, who’s that new guy just came in, who actually took the borscht?
Snowden: That’s James Risen, the Times guy who refused to testify and finger a CIA leaker. He’s in for committing journalism. He actually interviewed me by what he thought was “encrypted online communications.” That’s how I got caught.
Assange: Speaking of journalism, with no laptop, what are you reading?
Snowden: Sartre’s No Exit.
Assange: Oh, yeah. Hell is the other people you have to do your time with.
Snowden: That’s us. Hey, maybe we can be cellmates.
(Guard: “Chow time’s up!” The inmates leave, walking single file.)
William Bennett Turner teaches First Amendment courses at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of Figures of Speech: First Amendment Heroes and Villains.
From Politico.com, August 21, 2013:
Here's my op-ed on the Supreme Court's recent "indecency" decision: http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/10044-judicial-squeamishness-and-hypocrisy?newsletter
I published an op-ed piece in the New York Times on February 20, "Is There a Right to Lie?" It's about the liar case being argued in the Supreme Court this Wednesday. Here's the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/20/opinion/is-there-a-right-to-lie.html?ref=opinion
Letter to the Editor of the New York Times:
"Executions Should Be Televised" (Sunday Review, July 31, 2011) is somewhat naive. I did the only case ever tried about televising executions, in federal court in San Francisco in 1991. While the response to a televised execution would not be monolithic, I assume televising executions would be degrading to all, participants and spectators. But the only thing worse than televising executions is allowing our government both to continue to carry out capital punishment and to prohibit the people from watching.
William Bennett Turner
VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES SMASH COURT'S IDEOLOGICAL LINEUP
William Bennett Turner
July 10, 2011
As each new medium of communication has come on the scene -- from dime novels to movies, comic books, television, music lyrics, the Internet, and now video games -- government has attempted to shield America’s children from its corrupting influence. Every attempt has failed.
On June 27, the Supreme Court decided that a California law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors violated the First Amendment. Shielding kids from exposure to extreme violence presented a contentious issue. But rather than the usual 5-4 conservative-liberal split, the 7-2 vote divided the Justices in ways few could have expected.
Justice Antonin Scalia, politically very conservative, wrote the majority opinion, joined by three “liberals” plus Anthony Kennedy, politically conservative but the strongest First Amendment voice on the current Court. Two other rockribbed conservatives, Joseph Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts, agreed that the law was invalid (too vague) but disagreed with Scalia’s analysis. Justice Clarence Thomas parted company with his conservative soulmate Scalia and dissented. Stephen Breyer, who usually passes for a liberal, also dissented. What’s going on here?
James Madison may have been surprised to learn that the First Amendment protects not just political speech but popular entertainment. Noting that protected fiction, plays, movies, and now video games all communicate ideas (using characters dialogue and plot), Scalia said “it is difficult to distinguish entertainment from politics, and dangerous to try.”
So, applying standard First Amendment analysis, Justice Scalia found that the state law wasn’t carefully tailored to serve a compelling government interest. He said the law was underinclusive in that the state couldn’t control kids’ exposure to violence in Saturday morning cartoons, television, movies, books or even fairy tales (noting that Grimm is sometimes vividly “grim”), and Scalia said with characteristic sarcasm that California was “perfectly willing to leave this dangerous, mind-altering material in the hands of children so long as one parent (or even an aunt or uncle) says it’s OK.” Scalia clearly didn’t think playing violent video games seriously corrupted American youth.
His usual conservative ally Joseph Alito strongly disagreed. Alito did his own research into some of the most notorious games and found the violence “astounding.” He noted that “victims are dismembered, decapitated, disemboweled, set on fire, and chopped into little pieces….Blood gushes, splatters, and pools.” Alito revealed his personal revulsion at the immorality taught by some of the games: “There is no antisocial theme too base for some in the video game industry to exploit,” pointing to games allowing the player to reenact the murders at Columbine and Virginia Tech, the assassination of President Kennedy and engage in ethnic cleansing by choosing to “gun down African-Americans, Latinos, or Jews.”
Scalia acknowledged that “Reading Dante is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing Mortal Kombat.” But he said these differences are not constitutional ones: “Justice Alito recounts all these disgusting video games in order to disgust us – but disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression.” Neither is the fact that some of the games teach immoral lessons (it’s fun to kill innocent people or maim those unlike you). It’s likely that both the California Legislature and Justice Alito were animated more by their moral objections than by the prospect of actual harm caused to young gamers.
Justice Scalia also parted company with his “originalist” ally, Clarence Thomas. Scalia and Thomas say the Constitution should be interpreted according to the way the 18th Century Framers understood it, and its meaning does not evolve with changing times or technology. Thomas wrote a long, impassioned dissenting opinion, concluding that history showed the Framers would not have protected speech directed at children that their parents wouldn’t want them exposed to. Scalia brushed this off in a footnote. Without abandoning his own originalist viewpoint, Scalia said Thomas’s thesis that children don’t have “any constitutional right to speak or be spoken to without their parents’ consent” was without “historical warrant” and, in any event, the California law didn’t enforce parental authority over children’s speech; it supplanted it with government authority.
Justice Stephen Breyer, relatively liberal on most issues, is the weakest member of the Court in First Amendment cases. Breyer was concerned about some psychological studies indicating that playing violent games seems to affect kids’ feelings of aggression, and was reluctant to say the state legislature couldn’t rely on them. He acknowledged that no one has shown any causal effect between playing the games and actual aggression, and that many studies contradict the ones he dug up. As usual, Breyer was too willing to give government the benefit of the doubt. That’s always dangerous in a First Amendment case.
How to explain the scrambling of the Justices’ usual political leanings? These hard First Amendment cases, presenting clashes of free speech with other societal values, have little to do with partisan politics. Rather, they concern one’s tolerance for expression that really disturbs many people, and one’s trust in government to make sound judgments about what’s good for us. Unwillingness to accept offensive, unsettling speech, and faith in government’s ability to sort out worthy from unworthy speech, are the end of free speech. The video games decision is a good reminder of this.
WIKILEAKS AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT
William Bennett Turner
www.truthout.org (link to article)
Thursday 31 March 2011
Wrapping himself in the First Amendment, Julian Assange recently told "60 Minutes" that "our founding values are those of the American Revolution," those of Jefferson and Madison. Assange may not know that our Constitution was written in secret in Philadelphia, behind closed doors; there were no leaks. But the most imminent First Amendment question confronting WikiLeaks is whether it or Assange can successfully be prosecuted for violation of the Espionage Act. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, aggressively interpreted the 1917 Act and demanded prosecution. The act's virtually unintelligible provisions arguably make it a felony not just to collaborate with a spy, but to publish information "relating to the national defense." However, prosecuting a publisher raises serious First Amendment issues. In the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, the Supreme Court decided that the government could not prevent The New York Times from publishing classified Defense Department documents. The Nixon administration then tried to prosecute the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, but not the newspaper. In fact, no publisher has ever been prosecuted under the act.
We don't know whether WikiLeaks was simply the passive recipient of classified documents that came in "over the transom" as we used to say. If it was, that's like the Pentagon Papers case. To be sure, publicizing documents that demonstrate high-level official lying and duplicity, as Ellsberg did, is different from the wholesale dumps that WikiLeaks threatens. Disclosing government secrets just because you can is not necessarily in the public interest.
In recent months, WikiLeaks seems to be moving away from anarchism toward journalism, perhaps motivated by the wish to seek shelter under the First Amendment umbrella. The WikiLeaks site has changed its tune somewhat, now repeatedly emphasizing that its "journalists" review leaked material and exercise some judgment about what it puts in the public domain. It has not foresworn indiscriminate dumping or doctrinaire hostility to any government secrecy, but using responsible judgment would give it a better chance at First Amendment protection.
In deciding whether WikiLeaks would have a First Amendment defense, one question is whether it actively solicited the leaks, perhaps paying the leaker or providing software assistance to facilitate the leaks. Another is whether the information is of legitimate public interest. And whether a disclosure actually caused harm ought to be relevant. (No harm ever resulted from the publication of the Pentagon Papers; the government has not yet identified any specific harm from WikiLeaks disclosures.)
Actively engineering leaks of sensitive information of no legitimate public concern (e.g., the identity of a mole in another country's government), causing actual harm, would subject WikiLeaks to a charge of conspiracy (always a prosecutor's favorite). The government could avoid the First Amendment contention that mere publication can't be made a crime. But a successful prosecution under the messy Espionage Act would remain problematical.
In a sense, WikiLeaks owes its existence to two gaps in First Amendment protection for speech and press freedoms, gaps created by unfavorable Supreme Court decisions.
First, the court decided, in a case that I lost (Houchins v. KQED, 1978), that there is no First Amendment right of access to government information. That is, unlike in some countries in which government transparency is constitutionally mandated, American citizens have no constitutional right to know what their government is up to. All we have is a not very strong statute, the Freedom of Information Act, with a lot of exceptions, including a broad exemption for documents relating to national security. To the extent that WikiLeaks informs us citizens what the government is doing in our name, it partially repairs this flaw in our constitutional protection for speech and press. With better access to government information, there would be less point to WikiLeaks.
Second, the court decided in 1972, in another case on which I worked for the losing side (Branzburg v. Hayes), that reporters have no First Amendment protection against compelled disclosure to a grand jury of their confidential sources. While many states have enacted "reporters shield" laws, Congress has thus far declined to act, and the latest WikiLeaks disclosures seem to have antagonized enough senators to torpedo any chance of enactment soon. The result is that reporters can't honestly promise confidentiality to would-be whistleblowers. A source with sensitive information about government malfeasance can't trust that a reporter will not be subpoenaed to spill the beans about who leaked the information. To the extent that WikiLeaks provides complete anonymity (as it promises on its web site, representing to prospective leakers that it has "never" revealed a source), it again partially repairs a gap in our First Amendment protection. If there were a meaningful shield law that reporters and would-be sources could rely on, WikiLeaks might be superfluous.
However the First Amendment issues play out, let's hope our government's hands are clean. We now know that President Richard Nixon's "plumbers unit" burglarized Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office while he was on trial for violating the Espionage Act. An outraged federal judge dismissed the prosecution because of the government's misconduct.
We have no evidence that the Obama administration was complicit in developing sexual misconduct charges against Assange after WikiLeaks made public thousands of classified military communications about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and sensitive State Department cables. It may be just a coincidence that, following upon the disclosures, friendly Sweden issued an extraordinary international arrest warrant seeking Assange's extradition on a charge of failing to use a promised condom; there can't have been many instances of using such heavy legal artillery for such a charge. Companies that supported the WikiLeaks site, like PayPal, Amazon and Visa, may have decided independently, without any government prompting, to withdraw their support. And hacker attacks on WikiLeaks servers may have been orchestrated by freelancers without any government encouragement. It would be really distressing to learn that our government was involved in any of this. Imagine the irony if any government complicity were established by secret government documents some day to be leaked through WikiLeaks.
CORPORATE SPEECH AND CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM: MAKING SENSE OF CITIZENS UNITED V. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION
William Bennett Turner
www.truthout.org (link to article)
Thursday 13 May 2010
It's the most important First Amendment decision of the 21st century, so far. It powerfully reinforced fundamental free speech principles. Unfortunately, the court invoked the principles on behalf of business interests instead of the dissidents whose messages actually need First Amendment protection. On January 21, the court handed down its 5-4 decision, throwing out, on its face, the federal campaign finance law, part of the McCain-Feingold package of reforms, that prohibited corporations and unions from using their funds on communications - mainly television advertising - that support or oppose a candidate for office. The case pitted the value of unrestricted political speech against the competing societal value of keeping corporate money from contaminating elections. The decision came down squarely on the free speech side or the corporate side, depending on how you look at it.
The decision outraged the liberal establishment, with alarmist calls for a constitutional amendment, a nearly hysterical editorial from The New York Times and blogs fearing that corporations have been unleashed to buy whatever candidates and legislation they like and lamenting that electoral power will be shifted from the promising new grassroots social networking innovators to reactionary corporate interests. People for the American Way said the court "staged a hostile takeover of American democracy on behalf of corporations."
I, too, have long been disgusted with the influence of money on politics. On the other hand, I teach and believe in the First Amendment as one of the most distinctive and important values of our society. I view suspiciously any restriction on political speech. Any restriction should be rigorously tested, not given the benefit of the doubt.
Critics of the Citizens United decision focused on how the court made its decision and the court's supposed reliance on two fictions: "money is speech," and corporations are "persons" with free speech rights. They mostly ignored the decision's contributions to First Amendment freedoms. The decision deserves a more nuanced reading.
The Hypocrisy of "Judicial Restraint"
Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion for the court brushed aside all procedural obstacles to the broadest possible decision. Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit corporation, produced and wanted to put on video on demand a 90-minute documentary, "Hillary: The Movie." The film was an attack on then-Senator Clinton, intended to sabotage her in the 2008 presidential primaries. Citizens United sued the FEC, contending that the federal law did not apply to it, to video on demand or to the documentary. It formally stipulated in the district court that it did not challenge the law on its face.
The Supreme Court, however, refused to interpret the law narrowly, rejected any "as applied" approach, overruled two of the Court's recent precedents and declared the federal law invalid on its face. The conservative majority abandoned all the principles of judicial restraint that Chief Justice John Roberts had earnestly espoused at his confirmation hearing in 2005. Justice John Paul Stevens, almost 90 years old, observed in his 90-page dissenting opinion that the majority had improperly "manufactured" a facial attack on campaign finance laws: "Essentially, five Justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law."
First Amendment Significance
Putting aside the unseemly route it took to get there, the court's decision on the merits is an eloquent statement of fundamental First Amendment principles. Justice Kennedy, who in my view has been the strongest member of the court on the First Amendment, used his opinion to reaffirm and expand several bedrock tenets of the freedom of speech:
· Kennedy proclaimed that "Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people." Further, the First Amendment "has its fullest and most urgent application to speech uttered during a campaign for public office." To attack or support a candidate is core political speech.
· Kennedy almost said political speech can't be restricted "as a categorical matter," but backed off to say that at least any restriction is subject to "strict scrutiny," which requires the government to prove that the restriction "furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest." This is a tough standard and is virtually the kiss of death for whatever legislation is under scrutiny, as it was in Citizens United.
· "More speech, not less, is the governing rule," a proposition that harks back to Justice Louis Brandeis's classic 1927 opinion in Whitney v. California. The idea is that if government is concerned about subversive, erroneous speech that may mislead the people, "the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."
· Justice Kennedy's emphasis throughout his opinion was on the importance of protecting political speech regardless of who may be the speaker. The reasoning was that in a democracy, we, the people, are entitled to hear all points of view and that government should not be allowed to disfavor speech based on who is speaking.
· Justice Kennedy declared, "Prolix laws chill speech for the same reason that vague laws chill speech: People of common intelligence must necessarily guess at the law's meaning and differ as to its application." This is new. The court has long recognized that vague speech regulations, especially those that carry criminal sanctions, improperly chill speech. But "prolix" laws? The campaign finance law thrown out by the court was a mess; it was exceedingly complex and would-be speakers had to confront not only the less than crystalline language of the statute, but 568 pages of FEC regulations, 1278 pages of explanations and 1771 FEC advisory opinions. It is good for the First Amendment and for all of us that prolixity will be treated the same as vagueness.
· In the same vein, the court said that, as a practical matter, a speaker who does not want to risk criminal or civil liability for campaign speech is effectively forced to seek an advisory opinion from the FEC. Justice Kennedy said having to "ask a government agency for prior permission to speak" is "the equivalent of prior restraint;" it gives the FEC "power analogous to licensing laws implemented in 16th- and 17th-century England, laws and governmental practices of the sort that the First Amendment was drawn to prohibit." This is somewhat overstated, but it was nice to see the court reaffirm the free speech principle first recognized in the classic 1931 case of Near v. Minnesota that "prior restraints" - government censorship of speech before it is uttered - is unconstitutional.
· Finally, for those who would expand First Amendment freedoms regardless of other values, it actually was good for the court to bulldoze its way through all the procedural obstacles to declaring the law invalid on its face and to be willing to overrule precedents that restricted speech. The court previously had said that invalidating a law passed by Congress on its face is "strong medicine" to be sparingly used, even in free speech cases. Citizens United will be a strong precedent for future challenges to various kinds of speech regulation.
What is distressing about Citizens United is that this impressive catalog of fundamental First Amendment principles was put to the service of corporate interests rather than to assist the lonely individuals who invoke the First Amendment to challenge the power structure. It is they - the dispossessed, eccentrics, minorities, dissidents - who need the First Amendment's help, not society's established institutions.
"Money Is Speech"
Obviously money is not speech, but the court did not in fact say that it is. What it did say, quoting its earlier decision in Buckley v. Valeo, is that a "restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign ... necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration and the size of the audience reached." This seems self-evident. To "speak" in an election campaign requires you to spend money to print pamphlets and mail them to voters; to design and print posters and distribute them to locations where they will be seen, including billboards; to advertise on radio and television; and so on. Banning or restricting spending on these communications unquestionably limits political speech. That does not necessarily mean that spending money must be treated as the exact equivalent of standing on a soapbox for all purposes. But saying that the court believes "money is speech" is more slogan than analysis.
Should Corporations Have Free Speech Rights?
Corporations are not people, don't think, don't have beliefs. Should they be able to claim the First Amendment freedom to speak in elections?
Justice Kennedy pointed out how broadly the law's prohibitions swept. It applied not just to Fortune 500 giants with billions in assets, but to all 5.8 million for-profit corporations, most of which are relatively small businesses, many with a sole shareholder, and to labor unions large and small. Equally sobering, it applied to all nonprofit corporations, including advocacy organizations, making it a crime for any of them to run an ad supporting or opposing a candidate. As Kennedy put it, "the following acts would all be felonies":
The Sierra Club runs an ad, within the crucial phase of 60 days before the general election, that exhorts the public to disapprove of a Congressman who favors logging in national forests; the National Rifle Association publishes a book urging the public to vote for the challenger because the incumbent U.S. Senator supports a handgun ban; and the American Civil Liberties Union creates a Web site telling the public to vote for a Presidential candidate in light of that candidate's defense of free speech. These prohibitions are classic examples of censorship.
The prevailing theme of the court's decision was "the First Amendment does not allow political speech restrictions based on a speaker's corporate identity." It is the speech that is protected, regardless of who the speaker is. But the court's finding that corporate persons are constitutionally empowered to speak is not very firmly rooted in either history or political theory.
Did the framers of the Constitution intend to include corporations along with natural persons as having the right to free speech? This question of the "original understanding" resulted in a pissing match between Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Stevens. They debated inconclusively whether the framers meant the First Amendment to endow corporations with freedom of speech.
Stevens asserted that, based on the historical evidence he could marshal, "it was the free speech of individual Americans [the framers] had in mind." They distrusted corporations and they "took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare." He said these artificial beings with perpetual life and limited liability have "no consciences, no beliefs, no thoughts, no desires ... [T]hey are not themselves members of 'We the People' by whom and for whom our Constitution was established."
This provoked Justice Scalia to point out that the text of the First Amendment makes no distinction between types of speakers and that Stevens had failed to find "even an isolated statement from the founding era to the effect that corporations are not covered." Scalia acknowledged that statesmen from the founding era distrusted corporations, but said that their resentment was directed at the state-granted monopoly privileges that corporations then enjoyed.
Stevens in turn responded that Scalia had failed to come up with founding era statements that the framers meant to include corporations under the First Amendment umbrella.
This is a standoff, with neither side able to point to contemporaneous statements or specific historical evidence demonstrating the framers' actual intent. Apparently, we will never know what they had in mind, though it seems highly unlikely that they wanted the corporations they mistrusted (which were then specially chartered by state legislatures) to have the same speech rights as individuals.
We do know that according corporations constitutional rights like those of real persons crept into the Supreme Court's jurisprudence as a historical fluke and without any real analysis. In an 1886 railroad case, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific, the court simply assumed that the railroad was a person protected by the Equal Protection Clause of the then-new 14th Amendment, and refused to hear argument on the question. By 1898, the court was able casually to say, again without any analysis, that corporate "personhood" under the Equal Protection Clause was "settled."
(This, despite the text of the Amendment: It uses "person" five times and the context clearly demonstrates that it meant natural persons. For example, persons "born or naturalized" in the United States are citizens, representatives are apportioned according to the number of persons excluding "Indians not taxed" and persons are barred from holding office if they engaged in rebellion. The court also decided long ago that the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, which also belongs to a person, is "essentially a personal one, applying only to natural individuals.")
The court has never squarely confronted or carefully analyzed whether corporations should have the same free speech rights as natural persons. The treatment of corporations as persons with constitutional rights has been inconsistent, unexplained and baffling and is in need of some serious attention.
Justice Kennedy said, "The Court has recognized that First Amendment protection extends to corporations." To support this proposition, Kennedy cited 24 important First Amendment decisions going back several decades, all of which involved speech by corporations. They included such landmarks as New York Times v. Sullivan and the "Pentagon Papers" case, establishing the rights to criticize government and to be free of prior restraints on speech. The unspoken point was that it would be unthinkable now to roll back the clock and say that corporations have no First Amendment rights. No one is prepared to say that The New York Times or CBS News has no First Amendment protection and is, therefore, subject to unbridled government censorship. Many of the most important free speech rights we all enjoy were won in cases involving corporate speech.
That most of the corporate speech cases involved media corporations like newspapers has led some to argue that the decisions are explainable not on the basis that corporations have speech rights, but that media corporations are the "press," and, thus, are protected under the Press Clause of the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.") Put another way, media corporations, but no others, should be allowed to speak because they are the "press" specifically recognized in the Press Clause.
Before we rush to give News Corporation (e.g., Fox News) a preferred status under the First Amendment, we have to recognize that the framers clearly included in the "press" books and pamphlets written by individuals, not just newspapers published by the institutional press. Perhaps all the framers meant to do was protect expression in both oral and written form (hence, "speech" and "press"), though the historical evidence is that at least some of the framers did think that the Press Clause had significance independent of the Speech Clause. Perhaps, they chose to mention the press specifically because, in England and the colonies, printers and publishers had more often been subjected to official restraints like licensing, censorship and prosecutions for seditious libel. Whatever their intent (again, we'll never know), the Supreme Court has rejected claims by the press that it has special rights not enjoyed by everyone else. The court has never actually premised any decision on the Press Clause or held that it gives the institutional press freedoms beyond the speech rights we all have.
But corporations are not like soapbox orators and pamphleteers, and the court could treat them as having more restricted rights than natural persons. Unrestricted spending by corporate executives of money that is not their own is different from an individual's speech. Justice Kennedy acknowledged that some speakers - students, prisoners, persons on military bases and government employees - do not enjoy full First Amendment protection even for core political speech. It is unclear why corporations should have rights superior to these groups. In fact, the court did not decide that corporate speech rights are identical to those of natural persons.
On mature reflection, the court could conclude that because corporations are very different and artificial beings, they are subject to differential treatment and their speech is subject to reasonable limitations. The overbroad and somewhat clumsy law thrown out in Citizens United might not have been a reasonable and carefully tailored restriction on electoral speech. But Citizens United is probably not the last word on this subject. It would be good for the court to undertake a thorough re-examination of the nature of corporations and the extent to which they can legitimately claim the benefits of the Bill of Rights.
A cynic might plausibly consider Citizens United a faux First Amendment decision, a pro-business effort dressed up in free speech clothes. Justice Kennedy himself leaked a little probusiness leaning, remarking that the federal law "muffled the voices that best represent the most significant segments of the economy," and "on certain topics corporations may possess valuable expertise, leaving them the best equipped to point out errors" in candidates' electoral speech. Except for Kennedy, none of the other members of the conservative majority previously exhibited great attachment to free speech values. (Eight days before the Citizens United decision, the very same five justices intervened on an emergency basis in another case with First Amendment implications. The court summarily prohibited streaming television coverage of the Proposition 8 same-sex marriage trial in San Francisco to other federal courthouses. The disingenuous ground it gave for its ruling was that the district court had allowed only five days for public comment on a change in its local rules instead of the 30 days that was usually given. The Supreme Court recognized that district courts can adopt and amend local rules governing how they do business. The majority's rationale for reversing the district court, however, was, "If courts are to require that others follow regular procedures, courts must do so as well." How quickly the five majority justices forgot about "regular procedures" in Citizens United and threw off the bonds of judicial restraint to rule for business interests.)
The four conservatives who joined Kennedy to decide Citizens United all came to Washington as part of the Reagan revolution and have been fully committed to its anti-government regulation ideology: getting government off the backs of business. They all subscribed to the Federalist Society agenda of free enterprise unlimited by bothersome government restrictions. Intrusive and detailed campaign finance laws and regulations must have seemed repugnant to their beliefs. The cynic might say that their real allegiance is to the Reaganesque agenda rather than to the loftier values of free speech.
* * * * * *
The Citizens United decision calls into question the legitimacy of the court's impartial decision making because of the aggressively activist way the five-justice majority engineered the case to change the law to favor corporate interests. It is, nonetheless, a very strong statement of First Amendment principles, which should be useful in free speech disputes to come. Whether it irreparably damages our democracy depends on what happens next, events that I can't foresee. I doubt that many major corporations, especially those who sell consumer products and services, will want to alienate half their customers by so visibly, on television, backing one candidate over another. I doubt that they will want to put their own name on attack ads beamed incessantly into consumers' homes in election season or even on ads supporting the nominee of one party over another.
Perhaps, in practice, the decision granting them this right will only symbolically enhance corporate power. Let's hope it is the First Amendment freedoms it recognizes that will endure.