The New York Times ran a lead editorial today entitled “The Court’s Blow to Democracy.” The object of its wrath was the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday upholding the First Amendment right of corporations to spend as they wish in candidate elections. The logic of the decision would also apply to unions. In so doing, the Court struck down significant portions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance restrictions.
The Times editorial said that:
Congress must act immediately to limit the damage of this radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy.
As usual, the Times has stood logic on its head. The only way that Congress can reverse the Supreme Court’s constitutional decision is to initiate the constitutional amendment process – or, perhaps, to confirm more liberal judges to replace any Justice who voted for this decision and later leaves the bench.
More fundamentally, why should The New York Times Company, a publicly traded for-profit corporation, have complete sway to editorialize (and, for that matter, slant its news articles) for or against candidates as and when it chooses, but other companies are denied the same right? If freedom of speech of corporations can be curtailed because “companies are creations of the state that exist to make money,” as the Times argues, then freedom of the press should be governed by the same principle. The New York Times Company is no less an “artifical legal construct” than IBM or Pfizer. Is The New York Times saying that its company is not in business to make money for its shareholders or that somehow it is entitled to special dispensation because it is part of the elite media? Are we supposed to trust the newspaper’s editors to act against their own company’s vital interests whenever they wish? I don’t think so.
How about General Electric? Why does GE get to have its NBC affiliate MSNBC put on Keith Olbermann and Rachel Madow to rail against Republicans running for office and to fawn all over liberal Democratic candidates without any restriction, but lose that right as soon as NBC is sold to Comcast?
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote for the majority, saw through the specious arguments that underlie campaign spending prohibitions:
If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.
What the Times and other sanctimonious critics of the Supreme Court’s decision do not get is that corporations are associations of persons, just as unions are. Persons have the right to assemble (which the dictionary defines as bringing together as in a particular place or for a particular purpose) under the First Amendment and voice their views in pursuit of a particular purpose of the organization to which they belong. Government policy affects a corporation’s bottom line, which in turn impacts the well-being of its shareholders and employees. Corporations and unions should be allowed to have a say on the candidates who can directly affect their destiny if elected.
If the shareholders of a corporation do not agree with the direction of their company, including the political views that it espouses, they can respond by voting out the Board of Directors. If an employee does not agree, he or she is free to leave the company. And if a consumer does not agree, he or she can stop buying the company’s products.
With so many sources of information, including the 24 hour cable news cycle and the Internet, the public is in no danger of being steam-rolled by corporate advertising, especially with disclosure requirements still in place.
As Justice Kennedy wrote:
When government seeks to use its full power…to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought…The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.
The Supreme Court decision was not radical at all. Even dissenting Justice Stevens conceded that:
we have long since held that corporations are covered by the First Amendment.
The Court simply affirmed that unbridled political speech is the core of what it means to be “covered by the First Amendment.”