Protecting the Marketplace of Ideas

The Court has now corrected that error and returned to first principles. Corporations are groups of individuals and have the same rights to speak as the individuals who make them up, no more, no less. The fact that state laws affect corporate status cannot be a basis for regulating them, any more than it could be a basis for deciding that married couples, partnerships, or membership organizations are not allowed to speak. Nor can it matter that any group’s views may not “correlate” with the views of the public. The First Amendment exists to protect dissent. No one ever wishes to limit speech with which they agree.

But won’t corporations be able to “buy” elections with their vast wealth? No more than they can buy market share with their advertising. If they could, we would all be driving American cars and drinking New Coke. If it were so easy to “buy” elections, Ross Perot would be president by now.

Money does not buy elections; it buys speech. It allows Wal-Mart to support the president’s health care plan just as it allows other corporations to oppose it. No doubt, some corporations will lobby for special favors, as Chrysler likely did during its bankruptcy proceeding. But protections for corporate speech will allow others -- for example, Chrysler’s institutional bond holders whose investments were devalued during its bankruptcy -- to express their dissent. In short, corporations don’t speak with one voice any more than individuals do.

Speech -- even a lot of it -- does not force anyone to agree. It leads to a debate. Those who believe that money buys elections implicitly believe that voters are too stupid to make up their own minds. The First Amendment -- and at least the past two centuries of human history -- stand as constant reminders that submitting to the temptation to allow government to tell us what to think is a very dangerous game indeed. We should be thankful that the Court has corrected its error and tossed out the ban on corporate and union speech in elections.