Stealing the First Amendment from the People

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Matthew E. Crow is a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA and a writer for the History News Service.

Last week's Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which freed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on election campaigns, greatly compromises the integrity of all three branches of the federal government.  Its most dangerous consequence has so far been overlooked, and that is the co-optation of American citizens into contributing to campaigns they do not support.

The origins of the First Amendment lie in concern for the liberty of individual conscience and the right of citizens to petition and assemble for political purposes.  Both aim to protect the equality of the citizenry before the law, a democratic ideal as old as the Greeks and one that suffered a major blow in the Citizens United decision.

The First Amendment shields from government regulation the belief, worship and speech acts of the people.  It does so for the sake of individual liberty and the maintenance of a vibrant, equitable arena of participatory public speech and action.  Both the extension of personal liberties to corporations and the now de-facto unimpeachable perch of those corporations in the democratic sphere established by the U.S. Constitution are incompatible with the spirit and letter of the First Amendment.  In the final analysis, the Citizens United decision assists in making public deliberation constitutionally undemocratic.

In light of the decision, the 1786 Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom is emphatically relevant, as the intellectual and institutional predecessor of the First Amendment.  Thomas Jefferson drafted the bill as part of a report for the revision of the state's laws in 1779, and James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, ushered the bill through the Virginia legislature.

The law recognized religious equality and accomplished the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia.  Bolstered by an increasing and newly active population of Baptists in the state, Jefferson wrote in his draft that "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical."

Leaping to the present:  the Court has formalized the establishment of a new church in the structure of the federal government.  The implications of the Citizens United decision for health care, to take one example, are staggering.  If every citizen is required by a new law to purchase health insurance from private companies, these companies, under full protection of the law, will be able to use the profits gained from millions of new customers for political campaigns in unlimited amounts.  This arrangement will ensure that any efforts on the part of consumers to suggest or hear of alternatives to the current system will be drowned out.

Tax dollars, collected from the people by force of law, are in the possession of large banks as the result of successive bailouts by the government.  These banks can now use that money to seal off any efforts at banking reform, whether those efforts flow from executive or legislative energy.

Newly minted fans of the First Amendment on the right will say:  Well, fine, we can solve that problem by just getting rid of health care reform and government intervention in the banking sector.  But in the era of corporate welfare similar subsidization occurs in any case where tax dollars flow to large corporations in the form of grants, contracts or tax breaks.

Before the Citizens United decision, the people were already forced to compete in a rigged market of policy initiatives.  Now they are compelled by law to furnish the means of political success, in the form of capital, to already well capitalized and adversarial private interests.

We need no further evidence that the Court has joined opinion makers in establishing corporate capitalism as a state religion.  It is now constitutional dogma, ritualized and enforced from the top down. What gets lost? In a word, democracy.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Arnold Shcherban - 2/11/2010

First of all, by characterizing corporation as "a block of voters" the comment's author are using at least two implicit presumptions: that corporate contributions express the political and ideological inclinations of the majority of its employees, and that any block of voters has equal means of access to mass-media and other ways to get its voice heard, i.e. equal opportunities to influence public opinion.
Both presumptions, as it well-known and proven by life itself, are false, in principal and detail.
Therefore, his "get louder" campaign advise is just nothing more than a parody of democracy and justice.
On the other hand, what else any unbiased and careful observer could expect from the Supreme Court in the make-up it is now, which makes it not much more than Supreme Courting of Corporations (read CEOS)...

Peter Kovachev - 2/10/2010

Easily, Jeremy, although the interpretations are mine, not Mr Beatty's.

Leaving aside the fact, unmentioned by Mr Crow, that this is a matter of constitutional law and interprettion, and not of social engineering or political pandering, Mr Beatty's 1st point is simply that voters have more brains than Mr Crow obviously allows for.

Beatty's 2nd point is that the marketlace of ideas is also a real marketplace and that all who can and are willing to throw talent and resources behind their conviction should have the right to do so. Not being American, and knowing next to nothing about your constitution, I can only address what to me seem like points of fairness and rights. If other non-individual entities...say Big Labour and ACORN...can throw millions on their favourite horse, why not Exxon, for example? Curiously, although the former are, by virtue of their strong ideologies closer to religion, Mr Crow chooses to pick on market-driven business corporations.

In any event, detouring back to the 1st point, throwing money does not guarantee much in the long run, if the people...who are not as stupid as we are repeatedly told...don't want to play along. What did ACORN and Big Labour get for their efforts and millions?

Beatty's 3rd point is an accurate observation on how the Left has come to rely on banning and criminalization of anything that they are opposed to. "Lawfare" is their prefered form of "argument" whenever they are on the losing side. Examples abound: Conservative media is wiping the floor with their lib counterparts? Try to shut them up with content control and call it the "fairness doctrine." Labour unions are losing membership? Expose workers to pressure and threats by getting rid of the secret ballot....and call it "free choice" something or other. The public is starting to reject cap-and-trade as a scam based on made-up science? Get the EPA to call CO2 a "pollutant."

Mr Beatty was blunt and brief, perhaps because he didn't want to waste time commenting on fluff masquerading as substance, but he listed his main objections and they remain unanswered.

Jeremy Alan Perron - 2/10/2010

How do any of his so-called 'points' relate to the article.

Mark Reitz - 2/9/2010

If the right of free speach should be limited to individuals, and not corporations, what does that mean for a free press? Can Congress pass laws limiting free speach to individuals only, and deny speach to the corporate press, such as FOX News and the New York Times? I would enjoy reading the author's comments on this, and how those comments apply to this topic.

Peter Kovachev - 2/9/2010

Huh? Mr Beatty made three points clearly and briefly. Given the rickety "substance" of the article, they are refreshingly clear and more than sufficient.

Jeremy Alan Perron - 2/8/2010

Where does this comment even begin to touch on the substance of the article? Posting 'Shut Up, You' would have been just as an intelligent response.

John D. Beatty - 2/8/2010

These are blocks of voters, son, not robots. Amendment I is finally back in full force.

Want to talk louder? Get a louder block. That simple.

Not everything you don't like has to be illegal.