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The Supreme Court and Corporate Free Speech

Adam Cohen Time Magazine Jul 7 2010
When the Supreme Court ended its term last week, its ruling extending gun rights was the big news. But the real headline of the term was the court's decision earlier this year giving corporations and unions sweeping new rights to spend money to elect candidates to office. It is not an overstatement to say that the 5 to 4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which was handed down in January, could permanently change American democracy.

When the Citizens United case was working its way through the courts, it seemed like a limited dispute over the fine points of campaign-finance law. But the court blew it up into something larger, asking the parties to submit briefs reconsidering a doctrine that had been settled law for more than half a century: that corporations and labor unions are not allowed to spend money on federal elections.

The parties raced to finish their briefs last summer, and the court set the case down for oral argument before the term officially began in October — a highly unusual breakneck pace for Supreme Court litigation. By January, the court had struck down congressional limits on corporate and union spending on federal elections, ruling that they violate the First Amendment. Congress can no more stop corporations from speaking about elections, the five-member conservative majority said, than it could stop private individuals from speaking.

The new rule that the court laid down completely reshapes the political landscape. Until January this year, if companies such as ExxonMobil or Walmart wanted to throw their weight around in federal elections, they could encourage their employees to contribute their own money to a political-action committee, an indirect route that had inherent limits — notably the fact that there is only so much money employees are willing to give to fight their company's political battles.

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