What You Probably Haven't Heard About Citizens United

Release Date
October 18, 2012


Democracy and Voting Rights

In early 2008, a group called Citizens United sought to air commercials for their documentary that was highly critical of then-Senator Hillary Clinton. This appeared to violate federal election rules that prohibited corporations and unions from broadcasting “electioneering communications” within 60 days of an election. Citizens United sued the Federal Election Commission and ultimately won a landmark Supreme Court case that expanded corporations’ right to political speech.
The issue of campaign finance is hotly contested. Many argue that Citizens United has opened up a floodgate of corporate spending that threatens to erode American democracy. They also argue that a corporations should not have the same rights as individuals. In this video, Learn Liberty sought out the opposing view, in order to have a more robust conversation on the topic of corporations and politics. Professor Bradley Smith explains why he believes the Supreme Court made the correct decision in Citizens United. He argues that restrictions on corporate speech violate our Constitutional right to free speech.
This is a controversial issue, and we want to know your opinion. Should corporations have the same rights that people do? Should businesses and unions be allowed to influence voters? Share your thoughts in the comments.
For a good overview of arguments against Citizens United, check out the Story of Citizens United v. FEC: http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-citizens-united-v-fec/

Can a Politician Win Without Wall Street? [articles]: Five short opinion pieces in the New York Times debating the Citizens United decision
3 Reasons Not to Sweat the Citizens United SCOTUS Ruling (video): Reason.tv video about why the Citizens United decision is not a big deal
Citizens United: Democracy for Sale [article]: Politico article critical of Citizens United, and of the involvement of corporate money in politics
Study: Secret Donors Significantly Fueling Pro-Romney TV Ads [article]: NPR podcast/article about the effects of Citizens United on the Romney campaign
Two Concepts of Freedom of Speech [article]: Harvard Law Review article about differing views of Citizens United and the different conceptions of free speech which they represent

Should the government be able to ban books and movies? Well, the United States government says yes. At least it did in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Now you’ve probably heard of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission as the case in which the Supreme Court says that corporations are just like people and should be able to spend as much money as they want on politics. But the government’s position in that case was that if a corporation had any role in producing or distributing a book or movie—say, Barnes & Noble selling a book or Disney, Pixar, or MGM making a movie—the government could ban it if it contained even one line of political advocacy.
There’s a lot more to the case in this idea of “corporate personhood” than what you might have heard.
Corporations are not people, and nobody thinks they are. The Supreme Court doesn’t think they are. But corporations have been recognized as persons for purposes of the law for centuries—in the United States, at least since the 1819 Supreme Court decision in Dartmouth College v. Woodward, but really going back quite a bit further into the common law.
So if corporations aren’t people, what are they? Well, they’re not just office buildings, or desks, or telephones. Corporations consist of, in fact, managers and executives and shareholders. That’s really what a corporation is. By treating corporations as people, for legal purposes, we create a great many advantages for our society. In fact, imagine if we didn’t treat a corporation as a person. How would you sue a corporation? If you wanted to sue Exxon, you’d have to find the millions of different shareholders and sue them all individually. That doesn’t sound like a very satisfactory way to run a court system. Having corporations recognized as people for legal purposes allows corporations to buy and sell property without having to retitle the property every time somebody sells their stock. It enables people to pool their resources to create great new products for us. It allows the creation of an Apple that produces iPhones and iPads that we can use. That would probably not happen if you didn’t have some mechanism for people to bring all their property together. So the idea of a corporation as a person, as a legal concept, is very valuable to us.
Now, do corporations have all the rights of real people? Well no, of course they don’t. But corporations have all the rights that we as people have when we assemble, when we join together. So John can speak, and you have a right to speak, and I have a right to speak, and the three of us have a right to speak together. And we have a right to get a whole bunch of other people to join with us. And we can all go down to city hall, and we don’t lose our rights to the First Amendment, our rights to speak and assemble and petition, simply because we join together and simply because we might organize ourselves as a corporation in order to handle our administrative and management affairs.
Think about what would happen if corporations didn’t have rights. The government could just seize corporate property and leave the shareholders holding worthless pieces of stock that are of no value whatsoever—and they could do that with no due process and with no just compensation. It could search office buildings of corporations, because if corporations didn’t have rights, who would have standing to object when the government came around to do warrantless searches?
Corporations don’t have rights because they’re people. They’re not. They have rights because we have rights as people. And we have rights as people even when we join together with other people, and we have rights even when we form corporations. We form corporations to help us do the things we want to do in life, whether it’s go into business or hold property together, or even organize a nonprofit like the Sierra Club or the ACLU. So when you say that corporations shouldn’t have rights, you’re restricting not the rights not of some amorphous group or thing that nobody’s ever heard of, you’re restricting the rights of real people. And when we think about the position that the government took in Citizens United, that the government has the right to ban a book or a movie simply because a corporation had some role in producing or distributing it, I think we should be awfully glad that corporations have rights.
And that’s something you probably haven’t heard about Citizens United.