Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Right to Free Speech: Citizens United

One of the worst decisions ever made by the Supreme Court of the United States was the case of Citizens United decided by a 5/4 vote, mainly among partisan lines. Republican members of the Supreme Court--appointed by Republicans who have decried for years activist judges who choose to legislate from the bench--are responsible not only for this bad decision, but also for the decision taking away the electoral process from the State of Florida and installing George W. Bush as president.

Citizens United, in case you live under a rock somewhere and never watch the evening news, is the case which declared that laws prohibiting rich corporations from spending corporate money on elections were an unreasonable restraint on freedom of speech. Advocates of this horrible decision, such as former Governor Romney, declare that corporations are ''people'' and as such should enjoy the same right of free speech as any American citizen.

Corporations can’t be sentenced to jail. They cannot be drafted into military service. And yet they can be citizens concurrently of multiple countries. Corporations are not democratic organizations having the benefit of one-man-one-vote but are controlled by the vote of shareholders whose voting strength is strictly determined by the amount of money put into the corporation by the would-be voters. Instead, corporate decisions are made by a board of directors. And now, because of the Citizens United ruling, these boards can spend other people’s money for political candidates without the vote of the persons who furnished the money.

Interestingly, there has been a prohibition for years and years applied to unions disallowing unions from doing that very thing. It was felt unions should not be able to spend the dues of their members to elect candidates that some of the dues-paying members did not necessarily favor. Citizens United has stood this concept on its head.

Thus, we are seeing the results of allowing unlimited corporate investment in political elections, most recently in the Republican primary. Super-pacs furnished over $300 million alone in the intramural fight between Republican candidates for presidents. The $300 million spent in the primary election, in my opinion, is only a small preview of the spending orgy to come in the general election for the leader of this nation.

Americans value the right of free speech so much that America generally has bought into the concept promoted by the news media that the people have a right to know and that this right should be exercised without restraint. Court decisions regularly allow the slander of persons having any public notoriety whatsoever on the theory that to do otherwise would have a chilling effect on the media’s efforts to keep the public informed.

I have long taken a somewhat different view in that I have trouble finding anywhere in the Constitution of the United States or of the state of Texas that declares the people have the right to know anything. I firmly believe that the people have a need to know. Certainly, people need to know essential facts about what’s going on in government. I also believe we should be zealous in protecting free speech, but I strongly disagree that any great effort should be made to constitutionally protect lies.

What Citizens United has done is grant to the very rich, such as the Koch brothers, the ability to promote millions of dollars of slander almost, if not completely, anonymously. Recently, over $59-million spent on elections has been traced to a remote post office box in Arizona. It is highly suspected that it is funded by the Koch brothers who are estimated to be worth $50-billion. There are countless documented instances of phony 501-C3's--so-called non-profit organizations--which are mysteriously funded, and those participating in these so-called non-profits deny knowledge of where the money comes from.

If you believe elections cannot be bought, you obviously did not follow the recent election between James White and Tuffy Hamilton in the Southeast Texas area. Tuffy Hamilton was a longtime member of the Legislature--a committee chair with a record of achievement to point to. James White was a freshman whose record was virtually devoid of any major accomplishments as a member of the Texas House of Representatives. Tuffy was swamped with TV ads to the extent they were almost nauseating. TV ads are expensive, and yet James White’s campaign would run sometimes 3 expensive TV ads back to back, one after the other, in prime time in the evenings. The results were devastating for the voters of Southeast Texas as well as for Tuffy Hamilton.

Texas has a fairly decent system of accountability in funding elections–at least for the candidates themselves. A candidate is obligated to register campaign contributions, both received and spent, with the Ethics Commission. Citizens, as a result, have the opportunity, as well as the right, to check and see from whence the money came to promote a particular candidate. Unfortunately, with Citizens United, it is no longer possible to hold a candidate accountable for massive amounts of money pumped in from even outside one’s district in an election.

While I would prefer adoption of a constitutional amendment which would put us back to square one and prohibit unlimited corporate or union contributions, it would be a great improvement in the meantime if we would simply require that corporations give money to the candidate. Then require the candidate to report it so the voting public could have a better idea of who owns each candidate or to whom each candidate indebted for the price of his or her campaign.

As it is, it is difficult, if not impossible, for discerning voters to make an intelligent choice between candidates not knowing which candidate might have received a couple of million dollars from a special interest whose interest is contrary to the average voter.

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