By Krist Novoselic
Here is a quote taken from the Bernie Sanders for President site;
“In a 5-4 decision in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for corporations and the wealthy to spend unlimited and undisclosed money to buy our elected officials.”
On its face, this sounds just awful—an exclusive democracy for only those who can afford it, all the while not disclosing who is paying for it. This could be the case in American politics, however, the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling (Citizens United) is not the cause of it. To believe otherwise is to give the real culprits a pass. Lack of transparency in federal elections is the fault of Congress and the Republican Party who currently control it. In this article I will highlight how Citizens United is good for transparency in elections.
The second paragraph in the Citizens United ruling says this, “The government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether.”
The ruling stated that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), prohibited the group Citizens United from airing “Hillary the Movie” in the period before an election. This was seen as a suppression of our Constitution’s 1st Amendment free speech protections. Imagine not being able to show a film on YouTube because it was paid for by a corporation or union? Anyone who supports freedom of speech on the internet should abhor this notion. Nevertheless, the BCRA could have done as such.
The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) was keen on on the rapid convergence of technology and clearly stated how the BCRA could impact blogs and other internet mediums (p. 49). While the Court protected free speech, my article is about how Citizens United was good for the idea of transparency in elections.
The group Citizens United whined to the Court that disclosure of their funders creates a chilling effect. SCOTUS slapped down this claim by stating the group never provided any evidence of retaliation or harassment of its donors—even though Citizens United has been disclosing them for years. (p. 54)
Citizens United moaned that the disclosure at the end of an ad used up precious media time—thus harming speech. SCOTUS didn’t buy this either. They said, “Identification of the source of advertising may be required as a means of disclosure, so that the people will be able to evaluate the arguments to which they are being subjected. At the very least, the disclaimers avoid confusion by making clear that the ads are not funded by a candidate or political party.” (p. 53)
In other words, there is a public interest in disclosing who is paying for political ads.
Here is a final quote from the ruling regarding transparency—and it is a notion I fully embrace;
“With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are in the pocket of so-called moneyed interests. The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.” (p. 55).
This should be a clear message to Congress in support of laws requiring transparency in federal electioneering. Today, we get smokescreens at the end of an ad. You know, words like “Paid for by Citizens for a Better Tomorrow”. Instead of this charade, the disclosure at the end of the ad needs to have the name, state and occupation of the top five individual contributors.
Citizens United paves a clear path for rules requiring the disclosure of names of these wealthy contributors that Sen. Sanders bemoans.
We are currently in a populist era of American politics. People watching campaigns need to step back for a minute and not buy hot-button campaign rhetoric at face value. This results in chasing demons that do not exist. In Citizens United, SCOTUS offers a high-minded ideal of an informed voter. It is ironic that too many seem to be buying derogatory myths about the same Court.
*Image—”SCOTUSbuilding 1st Street SE” by 350z33 at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons