Sunday, January 24, 2010

Free Speech for Corporations: What Proper Constraints?

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By Cory Allen Heidelberger

A just society would be one in which liberty for one person is constrained only by the demands created by equal liberty for another.

Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 1973, p. 41

A corporation is not a person. The law and a majority of the current Supreme Court say it is, but they are wrong. As Justice John Paul Stevens said from the bench in dissent yesterday, “corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires.”

But let’s set that argument aside (as does the Roberts-Scalia wing of the Court). While I read the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allowing corporations to donate to political campaigns, consider this scenario:

Suppose I, a person, amass a vast sum of money (through hard work and wise investing). I run for state senate against Russ Olson. Two weeks before the election, I offer the Madison Daily Leader, KJAM, and every other media outlet that reaches our district four times their going rate to buy every available ad space. Good capitalists all, they accept. I even buy up Pat Powers’s whole sidebar (and send his seven kids to college). For two weeks before the election, my disproportionate wealth drowns out the message of my opponent.

Wealth is power. When is my power to “speak” so great that it threatens the liberty of others? What proper constraints may society place upon my use of my wealth to “speak” in the public sphere?

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