Back in 2008, an organization called Citizens United put together a movie which was highly critical of Hillary Clinton. The folks at Citizens United apparently thought that Hillary would win the Democratic nomination for President.
The Citizens United people were a little nervous. There is a thing called the Bipartisan Campaign Financing Reform Act on the books. Better known as McCain-Feinold, the act imposes stiff penalties, even jail time, for doing what it forbids.
And it forbids corporations from spending money to support or defeat a candidate for federal office.
It’s an understatement to say that the regulation of campaign expenditures is a grey area of the law.
Anyway, Citizens United didn’t want any trouble, so they started a lawsuit to determine if it was legal for them to broadcast “Hillary:The Movie” on television.
By the time the case got to the Supreme Court, Hillary Clinton had lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama .
Still, it was a juicy legal question.
The Supreme Court decided in favor of Citizens United.
I heard Justice Clarence Thomas talk about the case at Stetson University Law School. He made it sound pretty simple. If one man has a right to spend money for or against a candidate, so can two or three. If people have a constitutional right to assemble peaceably, they have a constitutional right to associate for any lawful purpose.
And spend their money.
A few years ago, Michael Moore made a movie called “Fahrenheit 9-11” which had a lot to say about President George W. Bush. Currently, there’s a number one best seller called “The Amateur, Obama’s Faith” by Edward Klein. It will certainly have an impact on this year’s election.
Still there are thousands of voices being raised around the country, calling for the reversal of the Citizen’s United case. Typically, these protesters insist that corporations are not human beings, and that they do not have the constitutional rights that people do.
You can’t quarrel with that. Corporations are fictional persons, creatures of the government which charters them. They have such powers, and only such powers as the corporation laws give them. If they do things that are not within the scope of their corporate powers, they are said to be acting ultra vires, and the state can forfeit their charters.
But corporation laws typically do not prevent corporations from advertising, or from publishing or broadcasting. Corporations like Citizens United are organized for the very purpose of promoting the political views of the incorporators.
Other corporations, such as labor unions, chambers of commerce, industry associations and the like are organized to promote the economic interests of their members. Very often those interests are affected by the actions taken by public officials.
General business corporations are increasingly affected by legislation.
Environmental laws, tax laws, securities regulations, you name it, what the Congress doesn’t dictate is delegated to a vast bureaucracy empowered to promulgate rules, make findings and issue orders.
All of which fosters the unholy alliances between lobbyists and legislators, politicians and partisans, cash cows and candidates.
I don’t like it any more than you do.
But I can’t bring myself to believe that a simplistic constitutional amendment declaring that corporations have no constitutional rights would solve the problems.
I suspect that many of the brains behind such ideas wring their hands in anticipation of a day when corporate property can be confiscated without offending the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights.