In its landmark 2010 decision, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Citizens United v. FEC that the First Amendment rights afforded to individuals also apply to the independent expenditures of corporations, associations, and labor unions. Essentially, the Court issued two claims: a corporation is a person and spending money is considered speech. Obviously that can be seen as an over-simplification, but those are the two fundamental rulings of the majority in the Citizens United case.
The aftermath of this ruling saw a noticeable rise in Political Action Committees and corporations participating in state and national elections. The Left paints this decision as a travesty that allows corporations and conservative billionaires to drown out individual voices with piles and piles of money. But it seems that Liberals would have everyone’s liberty suppressed in order to prevent a few wealthy individuals from taking advantage of the system.
Disclaimer: I am not a billionaire. As a M.A. student, my bank account is surprisingly low. I do not have the financial capacity to personally bankroll the attack ads and political campaigns that I would like to. While new media technologies are certainly a valuable tool for political activists, they are not without their limitations. I can tweet until my fingers get sore, but there is absolutely no guarantee that my message will reach its intended audience. In fact, I’ve found that my political activism seems to only reach like-minded ears (you reading this is evidence of that).
Any chance at convincing the other side to come to their senses and change their vote is going to require money. That is just a part of doing business. Television and radio pieces, mailers, email marketing, and even printing out flyers all require spending money, especially to be done right. While I might be limited in what I can personally accomplish, the brilliance of the Citizens United case is that individuals need not politic alone.
A Political Action Committee (PAC), for example, is essentially a group of people who have united around a certain political issue and have pooled resources in order to enact change. Citizens United affords this same right to nonprofits, charitable organizations, and corporations as well because they were determined to be “persons.” The majority opinion in Citizens United ruled that the First Amendment also protects the rights of corporations and associations of individuals to engage in political discussion. At the time, corporate independent expenditures were heavily restricted. The Court ruled that “as a restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign, that statute necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.”
This isn’t about allowing millionaires and billionaires to monopolize political speech. It is about allowing individuals from around the country to join movements and pool resources to participate in the expensive political realm.
For example, I am a member of the New Jersey Second Amendment Society (NJ2AS). Founded in 2010, the organization has rigorously defended the Second Amendment against politicians in the People’s Republik of New Jersey who would further infringe on the citizens’ right to self-defense. As a grassroots organization that relies on membership dues, donations, and sponsorships in order to operate, NJ2AS is hardly a financial powerhouse when it comes to politics. But you can’t put a price tag on member enthusiasm. When New Jersey State Senate President Steve Sweeney proposed forcing individuals to first pass a safety test before they could own a firearm, NJ2AS recognized this as an unacceptable affront to liberty. When discussing what we could do in order to enact change, one member suggested buying billboards within Sweeney’s district to support his conservative challenger, Niki Trunk.
After pooling our individual resources and holding a fund raiser, NJ2AS was able to purchase five billboards along major highways and roads within Sweeney’s district. This is Citizens United in action. Individually, we could hardly afford anything. We would be limited to placing a tiny campaign sign on our property. But united behind a single political goal, we were able to accomplish a feat that will noticeably affect the election.
On October 8, 2013, the Supreme Court heard the arguments for McCutcheon v. FEC, a case that seeks to expand on the Citizens United ruling. McCutcheon argues that if spending money for political purposes is protected as free speech under the First Amendment, then the limitations placed on individuals for how much they are allowed to donate to a political campaign should be ruled unconstitutional. Since the Court ruled that spending money is in fact political speech, a limit on how much money an individual can donate to a campaign or PAC can only be viewed as an egregious violation of the First Amendment. As it stands now, an individual is permitted to only spend $123,200 on political candidates, committees, and parties over a two year span. These biennial limits prohibit an individual from donating more than $48,600 to political candidates and $74,600 to PACs and parties.
I hope that one day I am successful enough to donate such a large amount of money to try to enact political change. Currently, I can’t. The Left argues that because the majority of people don’t possess this much money, campaign finance laws are necessary for protecting individuals from having their voices drown out by millionaires and billionaires. I suggest, however, that limiting individual expenditures is akin to placing word-count limits on political leaflets or restricting how loud a person can voice his political opinion.
People routinely paraphrase the First Amendment as a right to “free speech.” The text, however, protects much more than just speech. It reads,
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (emphasis added)
While McCutcheon is certainly a “free speech” issue, I propose that the latter portion of the First Amendment provides a better understanding of problem. I propose that donating to a campaign or a PAC is a form of peaceful assembly that directly petitions the government for a redress of grievances. The First Amendment doesn’t just protect my right to stand up. It also protects my right to peacefully assemble with like-minded individuals for the purposes of enacting political change. The idea that this assembly can or should be done absent any monetary expenditure is ludicrous. Citizens United and McCutcheon isn’t about millionaires or billionaires… it is about everyone. It is about protecting every individual’s right to engage in the political process in every lawful capacity, free from government control. The Liberals are afraid that when we figure out how to organize and use crowdsourcing techniques to translate individual frustration into tangible political results, we will be unstoppable.
Max McGuire is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Political Science at Villanova University. He graduated from Boston College, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Arabic Studies. Follow him on Twitter @SanityPolitics