The Case Against Corporate Speech
The Wall Street Journal Opinion, February 11, 2010
By Ralph Nader And Robert Weismann
Last month, by a vote of 5 to 4, the U.S. Supreme Court gave carte
blanche to the world’s largest corporations to spend unlimited sums of
money to support or oppose candidates for elected office. Big Business
domination of Washington and state capitals will now intensify.
The case of Citizens United portends dire consequences for the nation’s
constitutional premise of “we the people,” not we the corporations. Our
constitution, at its origins and through all of its amendments, makes no
mention of corporate entities, only human beings and their government.
For 120 years, it was not Congress but the Supreme Court that expanded
the definition of “persons” to include for-profit corporations for the
purposes of applying constitutional protections. For 30 years, the court
has granted First Amendment speech protections to corporations as
But not until last month has the court declared that the First Amendment
gives corporations the right to spend unlimited money to influence
elections. The court majority, self-styled believers in precedent and
judicial restraint, overturned two major Supreme Court decisions and
reversed decades of campaign-finance laws aimed at preventing
corporations from having undo influence over local, state and national
Granted, existing campaign-finance rules have been inadequate. Regular
news reports document how corporate spending debases elections and
elected officials. But that doesn’t mean things can’t get worse. The
court has challenged whatever social mores are left that view
no-holds-barred corporate cash register politics as unseemly.
The disparities between individual contributions and available corporate
dollars mock any pretense of equal justice under the law. A total of
$5.2 billion from all sources was spent in the 2008 federal election
cycle (which includes 2007 and 2008), according to the Center for
Responsive Politics. For the same two-year period, ExxonMobil’s profits
were $85 billion. The top-selling drug, Pfizer’s Lipitor, grossed $27
billion in sales during that time.
Such disparities invite corporations to spend whatever they believe
necessary to further entrench the corporate state. The money they now
spend will be used to reward friends and punish opponents.
Corporations know that money makes a big difference when it comes to
blocking protections for workers, consumers and the environment. Wall
Street, health insurance and drug companies, fossil fuel and nuclear
power companies, and defense corporations have been hard at work
defeating common-sense reforms that would make them more accountable.
Do we want more elected officials to believe that to challenge corporate
agendas is to risk their career?
There is every reason to expect that there will be much more direct
corporate electoral funding in the wake of Citizens United. Funneled
without limit through trade associations and shadowy front groups able
to run vicious attack ads without identifying their corporate patrons,
such lucre will deter good candidates from running for office because
they won’t want to have anything to do with such dirty politics.
What can be done about this accelerating drift into the muck?
In the absence of a future court overturning Citizens United, the
fundamental response should be a constitutional amendment. We must
exclude all commercial corporations and other artificial commercial
entities from participating in political activities. Such constitutional
rights should be reserved for real people, including, of course, company
employees, to enhance a government of, by and for the people.
Corporations are not humans. They do not vote. They should not be
accorded a constitutional right to influence elections or public
policies, especially given their enormous embedded privileges and
immunities compared to real people.
While the arduous amendment process is underway, the progressive
response to Citizens United rests with several legislative and
First, the Fair Elections Now Act in the House and Senate would provide
candidates a base of funding to run viable campaigns without being
indentured to corporate money. But these bills would not prevent
corporations from overwhelming the public funding.
Second, a strong shareholder-protection policy should limit corporate
political spending. This would require executives to get support from an
absolute majority of their shareholders before spending any money on
Third, as the nation’s largest customer, the government could refuse, by
statute or executive order, to contract with or provide subsidies,
handouts and bailouts to any company that spends money directly in the
electoral arena. This would help avoid corruption. No longer would
Citigroup or General Motors, which were saved by taxpayers and are wards
of Washington, be able to lobby as if they were stalwarts of
sink-or-swim free enterprise.
As Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the minority in Citizens
United, demonstrated, the Framers did not intend for the First Amendment
to confer protections on businesses beyond freedom of the press. The
robust guarantees of the First Amendment are vital for real, live human
beings, to ensure their expressive and democratic participative rights
are protected. There can be no level playing field between the giant
multinational corporations and individual citizens without such
It is worth recalling that representative democracy is rule by the
people. Corporations, first chartered into existence over 200 years ago
by the states, were meant to be our servants, not our masters.
Especially in the aftermath of Citizens United, it is time to right this
Mr. Nader is a consumer advocate. Mr. Weissman is president of Public