Free speech, but at what cost?

The public has a right to hear

January 31, 2010

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THE EDITORIAL criticizing the US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission incorrectly asserts that corporations, unlike individuals, don’t have First Amendment rights (“Corporations aren’t people, don’t merit special protections,’’ Jan. 23).

But a corporation is merely a collection of individuals, and individuals have the right to speak using whatever organizational form they desire. Banning such speech not only violates individuals’ rights, but also the public’s right to hear their ideas. If the opposite were true, then the government could prevent the corporate-owned Boston Globe from endorsing candidates for office.

This concern cannot be dismissed with claims that the media have special First Amendment rights. The Globe’s status as a media corporation is constitutionally irrelevant, and under the now-defunct 1990 Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce decision, Congress had the authority to ban its advocacy. That Congress chose not to censor the Globe’s speech is beside the point, because constitutional rights are bedrock principles, not matters of legislative grace.

Joseph Gay
Constitutional fellow
Institute for Justice
Arlington, Va.
The Institute for Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of the group Citizens United.

WHY HAS the debate over whether corporations should have the right to promote candidates for elective office completely ignored my right to hear?

Your Jan. 23 editorial decries “the influence of abstract entities’’ (that is, corporations) that is enhanced by the Supreme Court’s invalidating federal restrictions on corporate spending in political races

In fact, because the court wisely left intact the requirement that the identities of the corporations doing the spending be disclosed, the system will retain vital transparency so that candidates will have to publicly bear either the benefits or the burdens of having certain friends.

But, more fundamentally, your editorial makes it sound like the only important question is the “right’’ of a corporation to turn its money into political speech. But the First Amendment is also there to protect the right of citizens to hear.

Nor does professor Kent Greenfield’s purported solution work (“A campaign funding mess,’’ Op-ed, Jan. 23).

He suggests that corporate charters issued by the government restrict corporations to “doing what corporations are intended to do: create wealth by producing products and services.’’ This clever solution is probably equally unconstitutional, because the result is to squelch speech. Here, again, my right as a citizen to hear all sides and to learn what entities are supporting which candidates is equally protected by the First Amendment. It cannot be so blithely trampled.

Harvey Silverglate
The writer is an attorney.

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