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Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Speech is not money (Update)

People are having fun ridiculing ridiculous Republicans. After years of insisting that the First Amendment guarantees corporations the right to spend money supporting (mostly Republican) candidates and causes have now decided that corporations and corporate executives must "stay out of politics" when their speech consists not of writing checks to GOP candidates but of boycotting certain locations and business partners or otherwise speaking as an entity on matters of public concern. In fairness, maybe Republicans such as Mitch McConnell never believed that corporations should be able to "speak," only that they should be able to spend money (by giving it to Republicans)--and speech is not money.

Of course, the left is not doing much better. Many are urging, supporting, and celebrating large institutions (Coca-Cola, Delta, MLB) wielding their economic power to protest, and try to influence, government decisions and public policy. But if this is legitimate and laudable behavior from these companies, most of the left criticisms of Citizens United and cases--"corporations are not people," "corporations don't have First Amendment rights"--evaporate. Believing that MLB can and should move the All-Star Game from Atlanta in response to voter-restriction laws depends on believing that MLB has the right, as an entity, to take a position on matters of public concern.

Neither side can have it both ways. Either corporations enjoy First Amendment rights to engage, through expenditure (or non-expenditure) of funds, in public debate or they do not. It does not vary by context. It does not vary by the political position they take. And it does not vary by the type of corporation. If Delta can (and should) take corporate action that furthers principles you like, then Delta may take corporate action that furthers principles you do not like.  If Coca Cola can spend money to support the election of candidates you support, then Coca Cola can spend money, time, effort on positions you do not support. You can make your expressive decisions accordingly.But your response cannot be that it does not have the right to do it or that it should "stay out of" the arena.

There is a liberal argument that would oppose expansive campaign spending  but support current corporate efforts in Georgia and elsewhere. But it is not the Citizens United bumper sticker that most liberals favor. It argues that big-money contributions and expenditures should not be allowed to influence public officials and elections, that elections are "bounded institutions" in which unique limitations should apply in ways they do not in the larger public debate. This is an argument about wealth and controlling its influence in the electoral system, not corporate status. That is, the problem is not corporate spending but all spending, by people and corporations alike. But that is not the argument that most liberals make about campaign finance.

Update: Wow. I was being sarcastic about Republicans being ok with corporations spending money but not speaking. But that appears to be Mitch McConnell's position: "Stay out of politics because it's not what you're designed for," but "I'm not talking about political contributions," only "taking a position on a highly incendiary issue." Don't speak, just spend money. Don't take express positions, just give money to me and people I like (presumably to gain influence). I can only assume that issues and candidates with which McConnell agrees are never "highly incendiary." This would be laughable if not so par for the course.

I do not expect intellectual honesty or consistency from McConnell. But I would like to hear a theory of why contributions are ok but express positions are not. To blanket contributions (and expenditures) in the First Amendment, there must be an expressive quality to those expenditures. And there is no logical way to say a corporation has First Amendment right and can speak, but that it must limit its expression to the form of campaign contributions but no other expression in other forms (especially because giving money so someone can spend it is less expressive than other forms of corporate communication involving true speech).

Further Update: An alternative title to this post (seen on Twitter and elsewhere) might be "Money is speech, but speech is not speech."

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 6, 2021 at 11:32 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


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