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Supreme Court ruling returns rightful voice to corporations on “˜electioneering communications’

By Daniel Feeney

Jan. 26, 2010 8:39 p.m.

Corporations are people, too ““ at least, sort of. Because of the recent Supreme Court decision on Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, corporations now have a more defined right to freedom of speech.

The decision, which overturned an existing precedent, removes restrictions on corporate expenditures for “electioneering communications.” By overturning the existing precedent, the court is righting a constitutional wrong.

Here at UCLA, we are given the opportunity through student groups, or as individuals, to speak our voice. While most of us may have no connection to corporations, the right to speak as a company should be just as protected as the freedom of speech of a student group or student.

Electioneering communication is defined in the decision as “”˜any broadcast, cable or satellite communication’ that “˜refers to a clearly identified candidate for Federal office’ and is made within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.”

The statute ruled that corporate expenditures on electioneering communication were forbidden for any corporations. In overruling limits on electioneering communications, the ruling decides that corporations are as entitled to the same free-speech rights as is each part-owner.

So corporations might not actually be people, like I exaggerated before, but they are a group of willing people joining together for a business venture. People are not forced to buy or sell stock in a company.

If, for instance, you do not believe in the politics or moral stance that a cigarette company takes, you are not forced to purchase stock in that company. Because this is a voluntary association, the corporation should have a right to speak as a corporation.

While the court itself largely discussed past precedent in its ruling, we can understand why companies deserve to have those rights by examining the issue in light of the fact that they are a voluntary association.

Although the corporation may not be an individual, it represents certain interests of the individual, mainly those interests regarding the corporation’s business venture.

By joining a corporation, the stockholders are allowing the company to make business decisions on their behalf, and sometimes political speech can promote business ventures.

In promoting their business interests, companies are not partaking in buying votes but are rather being allowed to advocate the interests of their stockholders.

Above all, corporations are advocates for their shareholders. When a corporation is forbidden from speaking, the voices of the collective shareholders are being stymied.

To hold that individuals of a group can have First Amendment rights but to deny a collective body of willing individuals their collective voice does not follow.

In order to see why a corporation deserves a right to free speech, we have to abstract ourselves from our imaginings of conspiracy: that businesses are always out to illegally coerce politicians.

A business promotes its business interests, and a politician promotes the issues of the people and his or her constituents. Since a business is composed of stockholders, the interests of politicians and businesses can overlap.

A business should have a right to argue its point of view because, regardless of whether their viewpoint is altruistic, speech cannot be silenced.

For instance, if Congress were proposing a corporate tax increase, which may be may be good for some, corporations with valid arguments against it have a right and need to discuss the possible repercussions of an increase.

All people are in the business of promoting their own interests. Whether it is a collective of people promoting their specific company’s interest or an individual promoting his or her personal interests does not matter.

In a ruling prior to Citizens United, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a precedent was set that allowed for the expenditures to be banned. Courts naturally try to protect precedent, so for the Supreme Court to overturn a past ruling is no small thing.

It was the conflict of past rulings, coupled with the utmost importance of First Amendment rights, which necessitated the overruling in Austin.

The opinion of the court sets to paper reason after reason to depend on its opinion. The decision gives justification for its ruling, so by constraint of space, and the reader’s already waning (if not already vanished) attention, I hope to encourage readers to seek out the actual court case, which can be found on the Supreme Court’s Web site.

Going beyond the constitutional issue is the likely effect that the change is going to have on politics.

According to a recent Politico.com article, the court case seems unlikely to have any major effect on elections. Corporations, it seems, often do not want to alienate their customers, and large corporations simply don’t spend in a way that is likely to upset the current political order.

While we may worry about corporations becoming behemoth monsters attacking the freedoms we hold dear, given the opportunity, they will just try to promote those interests which make them more money.

Instead of viewing this as a bad trait, we should look at it as one common to us all: self-interest. Corporations do not act against others; they just act in a manner that serves their own interest.

I cannot pretend that I am an expert legal scholar. I cannot argue that I may know more than a Harvard legal professor who is against the issue. What I have attempted to argue is why the court has made valid points, and why corporations deserve to have the same rights to which we are entitled.

Corporations are not evil, but our preconceived notions about them can cause us to simply agree with a comment like, “A lobbyist can now tell any elected official: If you vote wrong, my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election.”

This comment, made in a New York Times column, seems to ignore facts and fails to take into account practical considerations.

By thinking of corporations in a new light, by examining the corporate situation with reason in mind, rather than fear, we can ensure that corporations are allowed their right to speak.

E-mail Feeney at

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