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Corporations and campaigns: Should their spending stay on ice or be defrosted?

The recent Supreme Court ruling erasing the limits placed on corporate campaign spending has many up in arms with what they foresee as a dangerous roadblock to democracy. The ruling recognizes corporations as being protected under the First Amendment thus granting them the right to participate in free speech, which includes campaign spending.

A recent New York Times editorial piece stated, “With a single, disastrous 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court’s conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.”

For many individuals and families struggling with increased financial woes and who feel increasingly like they don’t have a say in government, this ruling has elevated angst. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) said, “At a time when people are feeling estranged from their democracy, this is going to make it so much worse. This threatens the viability of our democracy.”

Many Republicans saw the ruling as a good thing. House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio said, “I think the Supreme Court decisions today are a big win for the First Amendment and a step in the right direction. The Constitution’s protection of free speech extends to campaign contributions. No organization — business, union, whatever — should be limited by the government.”

Republican politicians, however, aren’t the only ones in support of the ruling. Steve Chapman, a columnist at The Chicago Tribune wrote, “Critics fear that freed from constraints, giant corporations will burn vast sums to help or hurt politicians. In reality, most business people are not about to plunge into divisive election campaigns for fear of antagonizing customers. In the end, the right to speak does not mean the power to control the political process. It merely means the right to convey views that citizens are free to reject — which, if they distrust corporate power, is exactly what they are likely to do. Under this ruling, corporations will be allowed to speak about politics, just as they may speak about their products. In both realms, though, the effort is wasted unless they offer something their audience wants. The marketplace of ideas is not so different from the marketplace of goods.”

Representative John Yarmuth (D-KY) said his district is especially vulnerable. They have one television and radio market in Louisville, and all campaign ads air there. Yarmuth said, “If a corporation decided to spend $5 or $10 million in my district the last two weeks of an election, they would buy up every spot that was available,” he said. “I mean, they just write a check,” he said. “I mean, the implications of this are far greater than just the influence that there might be on a particular election. The implications system wide are huge and dangerous.”

What implications do you foresee this ruling having on democracy? Should corporations have the same rights to “free speech” that individuals are guaranteed under the First Amendment? If so, does their ability to obtain what Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) called “a giant megaphone” drown out the average voter’s voice? What role, if any, should corporations have in deciding our political figures? What are the appropriate limits of free speech? What made previous regulations on campaign spending successful? In what other ways can we protect the election process?

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