Stephanie Phillips, Staff Writer
Ideology: Environmentalist | Writing From: Portland, Oregon

The Supreme Court is currently re-hearing broad Constitutional arguments for a previous case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC). The decision for this case now very well may overturn decades of precedent limiting corporate spending in politics and may change the face of political campaigns today.  It poses interesting questions that truly challenge American values.

The case of Hillary: The Movie

As Hillary Clinton prepared to run for president, Citizens United, a small nonprofit conservative advocacy organization, released “Hillary: The Movie.” Funded by a combination of corporate and private donations, the movie depicted Hillary Clinton as a power-hungry, vicious liar, to put it lightly. Its purpose was to educate the public and encourage viewers to not vote for the now former Senator. It reminds me of Michael Moore’s propagandist style and features many prominent conservatives speaking out against Hillary Clinton, including the famous (or infamous) Ann Coulter. The movie did not do well in theaters, but it was slated to run on cable TV channels leading up to the 2008 primary elections. Hence the controversy: the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 forbids any mainstream political advertisement 30 days leading up to a primary vote without explicit statements about funding sources. Citizens United was clearly propagating a political agenda with this movie in the 2008 elections, but its funding sources are not clear in the organization title or in the movie and the Federal Election Commission ruled that its cable distribution would thus violate the Act. The group argued that it was separate from the campaign, engaging in an expression of free political speech, and should not be subjected to these laws.

What began as a narrow look at the legality of one film and its distribution, however, has since become a reexamination of years of legislative and Court precedent limiting corporate and special interest spending in politics. It is asking if these widely practiced limits are constitutional, or violate free speech.

Free speech or corporate limits? A argument for both.

It’s an interesting case, and despite my liberal leanings, I admit I’m conflicted as to what I hope the outcome is.  It pits different core American values at odds with one another, and really comes down to the ideology of the judge, as the case can reasonably be argued constitutionally on both grounds.

On the one hand, we say that no speech should be limited, especially if it is political speech, which is granted the highest protection.  On the other hand, we value a representative government and seek to ensure that our representatives accurately represent the greatest number of interests, not primarily the interests of the rich. Allowing groups with narrow corporate agendas to spend unlimited resources on a candidate often breeds corruption. Corporate spending on smear advertising campaigns can also provide an unfair advantage to a candidate who may not accurately represent the majority interests of his constituents.

My liberal ideologies side with limiting corporate spending in politics, and I have agreed with current laws in the past. I like a more level playing field and I don’t want to see my representatives become any more obliged than they already are to special interests. I believe that, ideally, politicians should directly represent their constituents, whether rich or poor, and not be beholden to the agendas of small groups who funded their victory. I also don’t like the idea of too much corporate money in political advertising. It can limit the democratic process: the amount of money available to corporations can make them almost undefeatable. I have seen it too many times in the environmental world; citizens are often persuaded by huge corporate “awareness” campaigns to believe false or misleading things to their own detriment or to the detriment of their environment. This reality already makes the political process a David and Goliath battle for community activists and grassroots organizers who represent the underfunded, and increases in corporate spending will only make this worse.

My constitutional and traditional tendencies, however, side with free speech entirely. It is an essential part of this government and a basic right. I do not want to live in a place where any group is limited in its ability to state an opinion and criticize its government or politicians. Such free speech also includes a right to spend all the money you want on furthering the reach of your ideas. This is a right that should be afforded to every person and every group of people, and it would be inconsistent to limit corporations in this right, period.