Citizens United v. FEC

In a number of Constitutional, tort and media law courses, I learned that the majority opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States more times than not make perfect sense – if you bother to read them.

The classic example of this is: the Supreme Court in Murray v. Curlett never said children can’t pray in school. The Court said children can’t be FORCED to pray in school – which, of course, is their constitutional right. In another decision, the Court ruled that school regents could not write a prayer for student use, again constitutional.

In Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission, the question before the Court was “whether a politically charged film could be defined as a campaign ad under the bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act.”

This, then, is essentially a First Amendment case with the full court concurring with Mr. Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion.

It is in the other opinions, with various justices concurring and dissenting, that lobbyists got a big break – at the expense of candidates, political parties and you, the voter. See The New York Times, 22 January 2010: LINK

I was interested in Michael Moore’s comments on yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling because he makes the same sort of documentary which lies at the center of this case. Yes, Mr. Moore has been known to stretch the truth and, yes, he has used his films to attempt to influence elections. Interestingly, the headline on his Web site reads,”Supreme Court throws out crucial campaign finance law, opens floodgates to unlimited corporate cash.” He makes no mention that the decision protects both the films he creates and his influence.

All the ramifications of this ruling aside, let me call your attention to the closing paragraphs of the New York Times article linked above:

“ … David Bossie, the conservative activist who brought the case to defend his campaign-season promotion of the documentary ‘Hillary: The Movie,’ said he was looking forward to rolling out his next film in time for the midterm elections.

“Titled ‘Generation Zero,’ the movie features the television host Lou Dobbs and lays much of the blame for the recent financial collapse on the Democrats.”

Nobody na├»ve here. We all know campaign ads distort, misinform and lie. We get ‘swift-boating.” But, there’s something downright disheartening when the Supreme Court gives its stamp of approval to the continuing corruption of our election process.

Brace yourself. We cannot imagine what big money will do to the November elections. Thank goodness, I disconnected my cable TV.


Read the Court’s opinions on SCOTUS’ Web site HERE. I found the Wikipedia entry on this decision to be concise, accurate and easier to read, go HERE.


Oliver Wendell Frodo said...

The Dred Scott decision had property rights as its core issue. Unsurprisingly, we do not equate its historic importance with what constitutes legal chattel. Those who believe that Supreme Court decisions narrowly define anything probably worked in the Bush Justice Department.

airth10 said...

The New York Times wrote, "The founders of this nation warned about the dangers of corporate influence. The Constitution they wrote mentions many things and assigns them rights and protections — the people, militias, the press, religions. But it does not mention corporations."

At some point early in the nineteenth century it was determined by a court that corporations were "artificial individuals" and since then have generally been accorded the same rights. That is how it got its 1st Amendment rights, like an individual.

But as we all know a corporation is a far more influential and powerful than the ordinary individual. That is why the Supreme Court's decision on campaign spending is such a bad thing, because corporations can throw their weight around much more forcefully than the ordinary person.

What makes democracy workable is the separation of powers, like that between the Church and State. I always thought of the corporation as a counterbalance to government, because it encouraged capitalism and liberty, whereas government is essentially geared to a collectivism. But now that separation has been further eroded by the Court's decision, which ostensibly allows corporations and government to really be in bed together.

Let's see how Congress reacts.

Anonymous said...

Michael Moore makes a film and the public can choose to go see it or not. The people that go to his films can investigate the points of the film for accuracy and relevance if they choose. Yes they might influence some voters but most of us going to see a Moore film are voting liberal anyway. The idea that they will persuade congress to design laws differently is a really big stretch. I see little comparison no more than in very general terms between a creative work and pay for favors. Conflict of interest is a problem for Moore only because he will make money on sales. Conflict of interest for Lawmakers has much further reaching ramifications.

B.J. said...

From Gallup polls, 3:15 p.m., 1/22/10:

A 57% majority of Americans believe campaign donations are a protected form of free speech, in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday on corporate campaign ads. At the same time, the majority think it is more important to limit campaign donations than to protect this free-speech right.

B.J. said...


I have purchased every one of Michael Moore’s films as soon as they went on sale on his Web site – to the tune of $59.95 each. They are skillfully done and entertaining.

“I see little comparison no more than in very general terms between a creative work and pay for favors.”

Nor do I. Apples and oranges. I was comparing his films to the documentary at the center of the case.

A better understanding of all of this would come if readers went to the SCOTUS or Wikipedia sites and read the actual opinions of the court.

Thanks, BJ

tnlib said...

I'm having a hard time accepting that this is a Freedom of Speech issue, but I'm no legal scholar. Can't believe Abe Fortas was the attorney in this case.

Tiny said...

Tiny is no legal scholar either, but thought it unconstitutional for corporations to be considered as "we the people." To say she is displeased with the courts ruling is putting it mildly. She is more inclined to agree with the dissenters of the court who wrote:

"At bottom, the Court's opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics."

The "undermining of self government" is the key phrase that hits home with Tiny, although she understands the "free speech" part of the ruling.

Too many politicians are already bought by big lobbyists. When big corporations can throw even more money in the pot for them, where does that leave the working class of people in the "self government" arena?

Tiny has more questions that she has answers.

B.J. said...

Great comment, Tiny! You’re the best, because I know how much you read and research to get the answers to all your questions!

When I said this is a First Amendmen decision, I was just stating a fact. That’s how it wlll go down in history. I then expressed my opinion about the other elements of this decision.

Three things:

We must all get behind Congress to pass campaign finance reform.

We must remember that the entity which stands to profit the most from this decision is the broadcast media, and we must view their coverage of campaign finance refom efforts in that light.

Finally, we must save up to support our candidates monetarily. Remember that Obama raised eight tmes as much money as McCain during the campaign, and he did it with donatons of $200 or less.

Thanks to all who read and commented here. I always take away something from your opinions.