a contemplative approach to politics

Rights and Responsibility

Posted by blindspotpolitics on January 19, 2012

All the recent activities of the Colbert Super PAC and increased interest about SOPA, especially after the Wikipedia blackout, have got a lot of people thinking about first amendment rights and especially about the first amendment rights of corporations. As of now, and as I understand it, there are really two sides to this argument.

The “conservative” argument supports freedom of speech for corporations in totality, expressed right now by the freedom to use unlimited corporate money to influence either political elections, the super PAC problem, or the political process in general, the media or Google pulpit problem of recent days (highlighted in here). Taking perhaps a softer approach to the often indefensible position that corporations are people, Mitt Romney and other conservatives and libertarians state that corporate freedom of speech must be guaranteed because corporations are made up of people, and taking away the freedom of speech of their collective association within the corporation would thus take away the free speech of those individuals; seemingly punishing them for being a part of a collective, although constructed, entity.

The “liberal” argument supports limiting corporate speech in the political realm; back to what some see as the good ol’ days before Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee.  However, in light of the corporate backed SOPA, many liberals have favored corporations, like Google, using their special position as corporations to influence public opinion about a proposed bill they generally detest. Surely, this paradox not only undermines the liberal argument but also sheds light on the lack of theoretical and constitutional justification for limiting corporate speech.

I believe that both of these arguments are equally flawed. There is a middle ground. There is a way to protect corporate freedom of speech for the classical liberals while also limiting the possible influence of corporations that are not inherently constructed to communicate to a widespread audience.

People have individual rights. We know this. In America, we thankfully and explicitly secured certain rights within the amendments to our Constitution, such as the first amendment: freedom of speech. Liberal or not, one cannot argue with the empirical fact that, indeed, corporations are made up of people. The conservatives go on: Thus, corporations have freedom of speech because we cannot limit individuals right to freedom of speech just because they have formed an association. By this logic, corporations obviously have the right to free speech.

Individuals, in a collective association, can organize together freely, rights still wholly secured. If we take this conservative argument to its logical conclusion then shouldn’t corporations, because they have the rights of individual Americans, be subject to existing and moot FEC regulations on individual contributions to campaigns? If corporations are individuals, or at least made up of individuals as Mitt Romney and Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute have argued, and thus have the rights of individuals shouldn’t they also have the responsibilities and limitations of individuals?

Laws limit the individual campaign contribution total in any given election cycle. Thus, although corporations have the rights of individuals they cannot supersede the restrictions placed on individuals. So now what? How do we proceed? If corporations have the rights and the restrictions of individuals, what does that mean for their involvement in political campaigns and in political persuasion generally?

I propose that the only logical way to proceed, the only way to protect individual rights for all Americans, is for liberals to admit that corporations are comprised of individuals who obviously have freedom of speech and for conservatives to admit that individuals, even those within associations, are still bound by laws, especially if those laws explicitly determine the extent of political influence an individual may have through money.

Since this entire argument, the whole idea that corporations have constitutional rights, rests on them not being people but being made up of people, the amount of money that corporations can use must inherently and earnestly be limited to the money from individuals within a corporation, the individuals who chose to be a part of these free associations, who support the particular corporate message—obviously laws must also be create within such a proposal to prevent corporations from forcing employees to support corporate messages.

Essentially, corporations can use their platform to present messages, but cannot empty their internal coffers to create media/support those messages. All political power, and all monetary influence, rests on the individual, even the individual within the corporation. Corporations can freely use their own property, such as their own website, to promote any political agenda; however, when giving money to outside PACs, or even political PACs operated solely by the corporation, the monetary expenses must be limited by rules regarding individual restrictions. Media corporations obviously gain an advantage in terms of communication in this regard since they already have a pulpit for mass communication.

If Google wants to put up a banner on their site saying “Vote Ralph Nader in 2012,” they are free to use their property (i.e. their site) to do so. And if another corporation, say Exxon Mobil, wants to encourage two thousand employees to all donate the maximum amount an individual can donate in an election year to a corporate PAC, that is fine too. Exxon can use that money to produce politically influential media and even admit that they created it.

What is not fine is both limiting the free speech of individuals via corporations by attempting to control their property and allowing individuals within corporations to supersede the limits placed on all individuals. This might be a hard pill to swallow for many, particularly many conservatives, but aren’t individuals in corporations still just individuals? And if your argument for corporate freedom of speech rests on their composition, how can you defend anything but this?


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