NEFAC’s Suffolk Chapter Looks at Effects of ‘Citizens United’ on 2012 Elections

By Rosanna Cavanagh

The panelists included Jeff Clements, author of “Corporations Are Not People,” Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts, attorney Gregory V. Sullivan, partner at Malloy & Sullivan of Hingham, and Scott Van Voorhis, Boston-based financial and investigative reporter.

The discussion focused on the legal justifications for and the ramifications of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission558 U.S. 310 (a 2010 decision to allow corporations to spend unlimited money on lobbying campaigns that work independently from candidates’ political campaigns, i.e. “super PACs”).

The majority opinion relied heavily on the legal premise that spending money is essential to disseminating speech, which was established in Buckley v. Valeo424 U.S. 1 (1976). It reasoned that limiting a corporation’s ability to spend money is a First Amendment violation because it limits the ability of its members to associate effectively and to speak on political issues.

The Buckley case had interpreted the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, which was the first comprehensive effort by the federal government to regulate campaign contributions and spending. Buckley allowed the Federal Election Campaign Act’s limitations on individual campaign contributions and reporting requirements to stand. However, it struck down limitations on individual expenditures on unrelated lobbying organizations and expenditures on a candidate spending his or her own money on his or her campaign.

Jeff Clements called the reasoning in Buckley that independent expenditures cannot be corrupting “laughable.”  He pointed out that the Citizens United decision has created the circumstances for an oligarchy to take hold in American politics as “$6 to $7 billion” was spent on the 2012 election and “60 percent of the spending was from 32 donors.”

Gregory Sullivan countered that he trusts the “inherent good sense of the American people to evaluate all the ideas in the marketplace” and make the right decision.  He also pointed out that “corporations are not people but they are speakers” and that “no point of view should be barred as the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea just because “a majority of people find it offensive.” Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989). Further, he argued, Supreme Court jurisprudence makes it clear that “deeming a particular group too powerful“  is not a valid reason to bar a speaker; when the government selectively limits which speakers we may hear from, it is censorship and anathema to a free republic.

Pam Wilmot explained her belief that Citizens United exemplifies the case where the “line between speech and action comes together.” She stated that “powerful individuals try to corner the market on the political process” and that it requires “constant vigilance to level the playing field.” She indicated that Citizens United has increased the amount of money not disclosed on campaign finance reports, the so called “dark money” in politics. She indicated that of $1.2 to $2 billion spent by outside groups on the 2012 election, only “41 percent was fully disclosed, 28 percent had mixed disclosure.”

Scott Van Voorhis’s investigation with New England Center for Investigative Reporting demonstrated how Massachusetts’ “corporate titans bankrolled key races.” He discussed the impact of Citizens United closer to home in Massachusetts races. He found that 32 individuals had donated $313 million to various key contests. He also indicated that theCitizens United decision has put pressure on corporations and corporate leaders to “pony up” more money for political campaigns, a pressure that they do not necessarily relish. In the past because of the campaign finance laws, they would have to do more gymnastics to give more money to a particular party. Now they can simply write one large check to a super PAC.

The discussion underscored a perceived disconnect between First Amendment theories and the harsh realities of politics in America. It provoked audience participation, including questions from a young student wearing a shirt that read “Corporations Are Not People. Money Is Not Speech,” who asked why the Court treats a corporation as a group of speakers working together to make a statement when really the employees on the ground level have no influence on what the “control  group” decides to spend money on.

NEFAC looks forward to more spirited discussion at Quinnipiac University on March 27 on how to use the public records laws of Connecticut to further investigations.

Rosanna Cavanagh is NEFAC’s executive director.

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