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Supreme Court ruling: Do we really trust corporations more than elected officials?

Free speech is vital. But more speech from corporations is plainly bad if it misleads voters.

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Yesterday’s 5-to-4 decision on campaign finance reform was bold and sweeping. The parties on both sides of the case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, offered the Supreme Court narrow ways in which to resolve their dispute. But the Court rejected those options.

Instead, it overturned two of its own prior decisions and struck down a key portion of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law. The effect of the ruling is that corporations and unions can now spend freely on political ads directly related to a candidate, and with no time restrictions.

Why did the Court take such a strong stand in support of the free speech rights of corporations? The answer is not that corporations, as legal “persons,” are necessarily entitled to the same rights as humans. They are obviously not. Dissolving a corporation is not murder, and regulating corporate speech does not silence a speaker about whom we have an obligation to care.

Instead, the Court focused on the real people who might hear the speech of corporations. “Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people.” Hence, Kennedy seemed to suppose, more speech is always better for democracy.

But on reflection, the idea that more speech is always better should seem just as ridiculous as the idea that corporations should have equal moral standing with people. Speech is plainly bad for democracy if it misleads voters. It might even be bad if it affects views by repetition rather than persuasion, if it is simply so pervasive that it effectively drowns out competing voices. 

The current political process is replete with examples of both kinds of speech. Exit polls after recent elections have shown that many voters hold false factual beliefs, and that these mistaken beliefs influence their votes. And the media blitz that saturates voters’ minds to the exclusion of all else is the goal of any campaign manager with enough money to pull it off.  Under these circumstances, voters trying to inform themselves about the issues of the day are not shopping in a marketplace of ideas so much as looking for a needle in a haystack.


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