Sunday, September 13, 2009

Supreme Court threatens to undermine our political free speech rights

The Supreme Court is currently weighing a free speech dispute. At its narrowest, the case tests whether it is constitutional to prohibit the primary election season broadcasting by a cable television video-on-demand service of a movie attacking candidate Hillary Clinton that was promoted by a non-profit organization. Congressional law restricts the spending of money by corporations and labor unions for partisan purposes during elections. Money and speech are linked since money buys access to billboards, pamphlets, signs, research, letters, radio, television, internet web pages, transportation, hotels, meeting hall rentals, telephone calls, etc. The Supreme Court could just rule on the specifics of this case, but the conservative Supreme Court majority appears to be eager to make a sweeping first amendment free speech decision against the existing court precedents upholding congressional restrictions on partisan spending by corporations and labor unions.

All free speech law should be firmly rooted in giving priority to the speech of individuals because all speech originates as an action of individuals and because civil rights are people-centered. Corporations, as legal constructs, should not have free speech priority over individuals, particularly with regard to political speech which has civil rights priority over other forms of speech. Individuals have free speech rights to associate with others of like mind and pool their resources to promote their shared viewpoint. Accordingly, corporations and labor unions in the United States can sponsor Political Action Committees, or PACs, which are associations of individuals to promote the partisan political interests of the corporation or labor union. PACs fulfill the requirement of rooting free speech in individuals and give both for-profit and non-profit organizations, including corporations and labor unions, equal opportunity to influence the political process with all other associations of individuals.

The conservative judges on the Supreme Court are endorsing weak arguments that corporations are entitled to the same free speech rights as individuals. They are claiming that somehow the 1st amendment free speech right for individuals is being denied when corporations and labor unions can't spend their general funds on political parties and candidates. Those are strange arguments, they defy common sense.

The fortune 100 companies in 2007 reported over 500 billion in profits. The profits of major United States corporations is no doubt well over a trillion a year. Political parties and candidates in the United States take in about 3 billion dollars a year. The numbers demonstrate that when corporate general funds start flowing to political parties and candidates they can, and probably will, dominate over the speech of individuals. Corporations tend to favor more freedom to sell anything, no matter the costs to health and future generations, using any means, no matter how dishonest, while paying the least salaries and benefits to workers, without accountability to anyone else and without paying taxes. They also favor unfair restrictions on and advantages over competitors. Corporations will contribute their profits to the political party and candidates who agree to favor laws that will impose such skewed outcomes. Giving the same legal privileges to labor unions doesn't create a balance here, corporations have much more money to spend than labor unions do.

For most people, the bulk of their stock ownership is in publicly traded stock. Shareholders get to vote for the corporate board of directors, but its far from an epitome of a democratic process. The board of directors nominating committee selects the candidates and shareholders can only vote yes or no for the nominees. Furthermore, voting is weighted by number of shares, and retirement, insurance, and investment funds, who collectively hold a large portion of corporate stock, neither disclose their votes nor ask the individual investors who own the shares how to vote their shares. Most corporations either do not issue public stock or place all ownership of the company's stock in the hand of a relatively small number of people who do not trade the stock publicly on the stock market, so there isn't even the pretense of larger public democratic control over how such corporate profits are spent.

Even if shareholders did have control over the policies of the corporation, which in practice they mostly do not, the fact remains that shareholders own stock because they want to make a profit, or at least not lose money to inflation. Similarly, the employees, who enable the corporation to accumulate profits, are working for the corporation to earn money. Employees usually own little or no stock in the corporations that employ them. Unlike contributors to corporate and union PACs, shareholders and employees are not a group of like minded individuals associating for the purpose of promoting or opposing political parties and candidates. It is anti-democratic to place investors and employees and union members in the coerced inferior position of having some portion of their investments and earnings that are under the control of corporate and union executives spent by those corporate and union executives on behalf of (or against) political parties and candidates.

If the Supreme Court rules that corporations and labor unions have a first amendment political free speech right to spend their general funds on political parties and candidates then they will be undermining the political free speech rights of individuals.