The Holztman Vogel blog reports that New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has a new front in his efforts to dissuade associations of Americans from exercising their First Amendment rights. A new website established by the Public Advocate condemns companies unless they pledge to not “tak[e] advantage” of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. In other words, he is using the taxpayers’ funds to castigate companies for retaining their ability to exercise their First Amendment rights.
The website allows the visitor to scroll over the names of different companies divided into whether they have publicly pledged to refrain from speaking about politics. If a company has not sufficiently renounced its First Amendment rights to the Public Advocate’s satisfaction, the visitor is encouraged to “reach out and demand that companies which can still use treasury money in elections reform their spending policies.” No one is really sure what the Public Advocate's actual duties are, exactly, although the current holder of the office apparently believes part of his responsibilities is to spend the taxpayers’ money bullying organizations into renouncing their constitutional rights.
The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) has filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission, accusing Fox News of violating Ohio campaign finance laws. Fox News’ supposed crime? While Ohio gubernatorial candidate John Kasich was being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, Fox News displayed the URL for Kasich’s campaign website under Mr. Kasich’s image for approximately 1 minute and 30 seconds of the 6 minute interview.
Here’s a video of the interview, which the DGA apparently believes is so damning that they’ve uploaded it to YouTube themselves. Kasich's URL appears 1:34 into the video:
If you watch the video you’ll notice that the chyron at the bottom of the screen cycles through several different versions, including “John Kasich (R), Running for Ohio governor,” “John Kasich (R), Author of “Every Other Monday,” and “John Kasich (R), KasichforOhio.com.”
That last one is what has the DGA up in arms. The DGA claims that by displaying Kasich’s website, Fox News made an illegal “in-kind contribution” to Kasich’s campaign. They also claim that Fox News should have included a disclaimer beneath the graphic, labeling it as a paid political advertisement.
The DGA’s complaint is absurd, and the implications if it were taken seriously are astounding.
Following up on the post below by my colleague Anthony Sanders, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown’s speech to the Ohio State Chapter of the American Constitution Society assailing the Citizens United ruling had a revealing theme. Much of what he said was the usualapocalyptic hysteria about the ruling that Brown has made before. However, Brown also suggested why he believed the ruling was so problematic: he believes it will make it harder to pass legislation he thinks is important. In other words, Brown believes the government must suppress speech in order to prevent some groups from interfering with his ability to get the policy outcomes he wants.
This view is not new, unfortunately. One can easily disregard Brown’s simplistic Manichean worldview, where corporations run by autocratic robber barons (undoubtedly all fat men sporting walrus mustaches and wearing waistcoats and top hats) frustrate the noble legislature’s selfless quest for social democracy by manipulating the beliefs of a sheep-like public. More fundamentally, though, it is hard to find a position more antithetical to the First Amendment than the argument, “we need to suppress speech so the government has an easier time doing what it wants.”
The First Amendment prevents the government from abridging free speech and the law at issue in Citizens United did just that—it banned books, pamphlets, advertisements, etc. because of the identity of the speaker. The fact that the Court struck down a law that silenced speakers with which government officials often disagree is precisely why the case was so important for the continued vitality of the First Amendment. Perhaps Senator Brown’s real problem with the case is that it establishes that if the First Amendment protects anything, it protects political speech—even the speech of those who disagree with wanna-be censors like Sherrod Brown.
In a recent speech Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio unwittingly illustrated the folly of attacks on “judicial activism” by the left and the right. Senator Brown decried the Supreme Court’s opinion in Citizens United because it allowed corporations (and unions, although it does not appear the Senator complained about that result) to speak about elections. He claimed there is no “better example of an activist judiciary legislating from the bench than the Citizens United case.” He said this flew in the face of decades of complaints from conservatives arguing “that liberal courts are making law from the bench.”
Senator Brown is right that conservatives have used the rhetoric of “judicial activism” for years when courts have struck down laws that they like. And many of those same conservatives support the Court when it strikes down laws they do not like, such as the ban on corporate speech at issue in Citizens United. But the same can be said of leftists. They support the Court when it strikes down, for example, bans on flag burning or nude dancing, but excoriate the Court when it defends the right of people to associate in the corporate form and speak, as the Court did in Citizens United.
Here at the Institute for Justice we disagree with both sides. We reject the terms “activism” and “restraint” as they are commonly used as two sides of a false dichotomy. Instead, judges should practice judicial engagement, no matter what the context. That is, they should do their jobs. The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” It is not “activist” to actually enforce that language. Judges, just like Senators, swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Instead of complaining when judges do their job, we should be outraged that many judges, such as the dissenters in Citizens United, vote to uphold laws that violate the Constitution. In short, the real outrage is not judicial engagement, but judicial abdication.
As we’ve noted, Target has drawn heavy fire for its donation to an organization that’s speaking out in support of Minnesota gubernatorial candidate who opposes gay marriage. One of the latest examples of this criticism is a humorous viral video featuring a flash mob that performs a song called “Target Ain’t People”—set to the tune of Depeche Mode’s hit song “People are People”—in the middle of a Target store as employees and customers look on with varying degrees of bemusement.
A link to the video is here. A small sample of the lyrics follows:
I can’t understand what makes Target
think they’ll get away. Gonna make them pay.
Target ain’t people so why should it be
allowed to play around with our democracy.
Later, the performers tell their audience: “Boycott Target. Take America back!”
You could dismiss this video as the frivolous ramblings of slackers who like to dress up in costumes and make an annoyance of themselves instead of, you know, getting a job. But that would be a mistake. That’s because the video unwittingly provides all the insight you’ll ever need into what makes critics of Citizens United tick.
For all their railing against Target spending money on speech, it’s clear that the not-ready-for-prime-time players don’t think that corporations like Target can make them do their bidding. They want the audience to know that they’re smarter and hipper than that. And they clearly believe that there are at least some like-minded individuals of a progressive political mindset who will join them in their anti-Target crusade.
Inevitably, whenever one starts reading about the government’s “compelling” need to collect information on the political activity of American citizens, one comes across this quote from Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Ever since the Supreme Court used the quote in Buckley v. Valeo to support federal campaign disclosure laws, anyone arguing that the government should not be in the business of maintaining databases of the political activities of its citizens is confronted with this chestnut.
It’s time to put this cliché to rest, if for no other reason than it is purely idiotic from a substantive standpoint. Try treating your next bout of sepsis with sunlight and see how well that goes. Somehow widespread electrification across the U.S. has not alleviated the need for policemen. If someone other than Louis Brandeis had said this, most people would think that that person was delusional.
Moreover, this line has nothing to do with the First Amendment. Brandeis wrote this line in a book, Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It that dealt with bankers’ use of “other people’s money” to invest in companies in which they held interlocking directorates and other financial shenanigans. He was urging that the financial interests of these bankers should be transparent so that investors and depositors knew what happened to their money. His line was not a call for the widespread collection of data on citizen speech that the government engages in today.
Finally, when employing this quote, most pro-regulation writers do not include the sentence that immediately precedes the “disinfectant” line: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases.” Whatever a “social or industrial disease” may be, the First Amendment does not qualify. Rather, the First Amendment is the key to American liberty and an indispensible tool against tyranny; when government monitors and collects information about the political speech and activities of Americans, First Amendment rights are harmed. It’s high time we stopped applying a remedy assumed to eliminate “social and industrial diseases” to one of our most fundamental constitutional rights.
Glenn Greenwald wrote a column in Salon back in 2008 that bears on the debates over Citizens United and the Shareholder Protection Act. Greenwald rightly criticized Palin for claiming the First Amendment was threatened when reporters attacked her for making negative comments about President Obama:
The First Amendment is actually not that complicated. It can be read from start to finish in about 10 seconds. It bars the Government from abridging free speech rights. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether you’re free to say things without being criticized, or whether you can comment on blogs without being edited, or whether people can bar you from their private planes because they don’t like what you’ve said.
In a recent op-ed, Steven Maviglio and Jon Fleischman, two veteran California bloggers, lavish praise on the Fair Political Practices Commission for its suggestions on how to regulate online political activity. According to the two, “the use of the Internet for political activity has enriched democracy, inspired creativity and fostered robust debate.” So what’s the problem? Well, it turns out that some people have been talking in ways that the two don’t like. So in order to “tame politics on [the] Web,” as the two put it, California has chosen to toss anonymity out the window and to require that candidates’ Facebook posts, tweets, and e-mails be larded up with as many disclaimers as they can bear.
Although Maviglio and Fleischman commend the FPPC for its light touch, we here at Congress Shall Make No Law have an even more modest suggestion: do nothing. The First Amendment protects all Americans’ rights to talk about whatever they want. Freedom of speech is our birthright, not a mere privilege that the government may grant or deny as it sees fit.