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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Am I hearing this correctly?

The Supreme court issued a split ruling on legislative limits placed on corporate support of political activities. The ruling lifted restrictions on corporate funding based upon an interpretation of the constitution which basically finds no justification for the government to place limits political speech, either by individuals of by individuals banded together voluntarily in the form of corporations. The NY Times issued a scathing editorial attacking the court decision.

The Court’s Blow to Democracy

With a single, disastrous 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court’s conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.
Congress must act immediately to limit the damage of this radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy.....

The first amendment is very brief and simply states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The language is starkly simple. I see no exceptions guaranteeing freedom of speech only to single individuals here. Which brings me to the second line in the NYT piece calling upon Congress to act. Did they not read the Constitution where it says " Congress shall make no law."? Why should they think that the way to address the first amendment, which prohibits Congress from acting to abridge free speech, is to implore Congress to act to abridge free speech?

It appears that their background on US History is somewhat lacking. Remember, the Bill of Rights was added because there was great concern that the citizenry required greater protections from incursions of the state, not as a brake on private activity of citizens, either singly or in the form of volunteer associations.

The Times protestations are somewhat disingenuous since they are a corporation. However, the law as previously conceived created exemptions for media of certain types. The exemption is based upon an obsolete conception of the press and corporations. This creates all sorts of ambiguities which can serve as an impediment to free speech. This is well summarized in the DeMoines Register:

The Opinion makes an excellent point about corporations involved in the news business.  Freedom of the press was a clear intent of the Framers.  In order to restrict corporate political activity, exemptions have to be made for those corporations involved in the media.  This gives one company rights another does not have and that is unfair.  Laws that permit a company that owns a newspaper to promote a candidate or issue whenever and however they like, but restrict a non-media company from doing the same are inherently biased.
The Opinion also speaks to the decline of print and broadcast media and the rise of the Internet and new forms of communication.  The line between the media and others who wish to comment on political and social issues has become blurred.

It seems pretty straight forward to me. On the side of human freedom is the narrow majority of the court who interpret the plain language of the first amendment as it sounds. The opposition wants to empower the state to squelch speech of individuals banded together in voluntary associations, with certain ill defined and politically exploitable exceptions.

1 comment:

  1. The Supreme Court, or any court, is not charged with deciding if a particular policy or view is a good idea. It's role is not to help corporations, save puppies or protect the environment. It is to decide if a policy is legal. This bedrock principle is often mangled in the liberal press (and sometimes from the political right as well). Some may not like if corporations can pay for ads without financial limits because they claim this will give undue influence. While this may be true for corporations, or for unions, this is not relevant to me. I only want the courts to decide if it is legal. Policy changes should be pursued by the other 2 branches of government. It's nearly always the case the a court's decision is attacked by those who disagree with the policy outcome, as if this is tantamount to a judicial defect.