Citizens United paranoia

Just saw that the Democrats have put overturning the Citizens United ruling, by constitutional amendment if necessary, into their party plank. I’m sure that’s going to rouse a lot of support among the Democrat rank and file. I hope that enthusiasm is due to not thinking things through carefully instead of knowing and supporting the results of that position. 

It’s important to remember what the Citizens United group did and why it got them in trouble. That organization made a video that was critical of Hillary Clinton and released it fairly close to an election. It wasn’t an ad, it was a 90 minute “documentary” available on video on demand cable channels. I’m sure that it was as unbiased as any Michael Moore documentary (eye roll) but the veracity of the critique isn’t what got them in trouble, it was the timing. The laws at the time had an exclusion zone around elections when it came to political speech by groups.

So keep that in mind, a group was stopped from distributing a film because it was critical of a politician near an election. Doesn’t that strike you as… unAmerican? I mean, we usually associate illegal critiques of politicians with places like China, the middle east, Mymmar, etc. Speaking out against politicians is pretty much what the 1st amendment is about.

“But corporations aren’t people!” I still don’t know what that phrase is trying to argue. Corporations are made up of people and in the case of advocacy groups, they are made up of people that want to share a viewpoint. Is there really a good reason they shouldn’t be heard? Is there a good way for ideas to get out into the mainstream press without people forming into groups? Should we only hear messages from the political parties? Should single issue groups really be marginalized?

But let’s say you’re OK with that. The important thing is that we keep corporations from spending money on political advocacy. I’m going to skip the “why” question and ask if that applies to all corporations. If a constitutional amendment passes, how do we distinguish the New York Times corporation from any other? What would stop a group like Citizens United from claiming to be “the press?” Would these rules apply to the DNC and RNC? The other question is do we try to stop corporations from political advocacy in general or just from advocating candidates? Is there a difference? Groups (and they are mostly corporations) do political advocacy all the time. Is there a practical difference between saying “Vote for a candidate that supports unions” vs. “The AFLCIO endorses Obama because he supports unions”? At what point would we tell groups like the ACLU, NAACP, Teamsters, NEA, that they can’t advocate for candidates? Do we really want that? The bottom line is that any law or amendment that tries to address these questions will most likely be too broad and limit too much speech. If it isn’t it will be too easily circumvented.

The big thing to remember is that whenever a right is infringed upon, it is always the smaller, more vulnerable group that is at the most risk. Laws that restrict political speech will always disproportionally affect minority opinions, opinions from more vulnerable populations. Yes, powerful groups will use it for their own agendas, but we have to keep open the possibility for all groups to have their say. If you worry about the powerful swamping the little guy with their messages, think about how much worse it would be if the little guy isn’t allowed to speak at all. If you want groups like the ACLU, NAACP, or any other advocacy groups to have a voice in elections, you should be happy with the Citizens United decision.

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