Once upon a time, not long ago, a government claimed that it could ban books, films, or other forms of speech if they contained a single line of political advocacy and were funded by corporations or unions.
In today’s world, corporations are an integral part of public debate. Books are published and sold by corporations, films and television are produced and distributed by corporations, and news reporting is primarily conducted by corporations.
The power to prohibit or censor corporate political speech would allow the government essentially to pull the plug on public debate.
So what oppressive government, in what time period of history, would dare claim the power to silence political speech and dissent? You might guess that it’s Venezuela or China, but you would be wrong.
This is the position the U.S. government argued to the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC, which was decided four years ago.
The government claimed it had the power to ban or force censorship of books Penguin, Random House, or Simon and Schuster might like to publish.
Such power would allow it to dictate what books Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble could sell, and what films and television could be produced and distributed by movie studios, television networks and cable companies.
It might not even stop there. Could a law be passed to prohibit corporations like the New York Times from speaking out about politicians in newspapers?
Luckily, the court didn’t abide the government’s power grab. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the government could not ban speech on the basis of the speaker’s identity.
As Justice Anthony Kennedy noted for the majority, the First Amendment is for everyone:
“There is no basis for the proposition that, in the political speech context, the government may impose restrictions on certain disfavored speakers. Both history and logic lead to this conclusion.”
The Citizens United decision has been morphed into a bogeyman by its detractors, invoked as the specter of so-called “big money” influence in politics.
This representation is not only flawed, it’s backwards. If the government had prevailed in banning groups from speaking out, only wealthy individuals who could afford to produce and publish their own speech would be heard.
By recognizing that our First Amendment rights exist in groups as well as in individuals, the court handed a major victory to ordinary Americans, who usually must organize together to amplify their voices enough to be heard.
That this ruling could become so controversial demonstrates how far anti-speech activists will go as they work to undermine the First Amendment.
Democracies thrive when the public is free to exchange information and debate ideas. In recognizing that speech cannot be silenced regardless of its source, the Supreme Court indeed opened the floodgates – for speech and information to reach the public.
Voters having more knowledge and louder voices may scare cranky politicians and activists that are used to having a monopoly on D.C. influence.
But for the rest of us, it’s a victory worth celebrating. The next time you find a thought-provoking news story, book, or film, take a second to think about how the free exchange of ideas, even among corporations, benefits us all.
Instead of deriding Citizens United, we should celebrate it as a landmark victory for free speech and thank the Supreme Court for standing up for the First Amendment.Luke Wachob is a policy analyst for the Center for Competitive Politics. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.