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Corporations Can’t Pledge Allegiance

Outcries against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, extending corporations’ 1st Amendment rights, point to many advantages giving corporations the edge over natural persons: “Limited liability” protects company owners from personal responsibility for business debts; and corporations are virtually immortal — a big advantage. Mostly, though, critics point out the obvious: that a corporation’s resources — Exxon Mobil earns $1,300 per second — typically dwarf those of ordinary mortals.

But whatever one’s stand on “free speech rights” for corporations, what seems inarguable is that once the Court — notably in its 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision — began conflating spending and speech corporations and the wealthiest among us have been the big winners. Their vast resources enable them to morph into ear-shattering bullhorns drowning out regular citizens.

And, from this thought, I’m compelled to ask the “tree falling in the forest” question: Do I still have free speech if no one even knows I’m speaking because a tiny minority of “corporate voices” can produce a cacophony so loud that it cancels out the sound of mine?

Put another way, without any recognition of a right to be heard, does our 1st Amendment lose its power to protect the interchange of ideas — foundational to democracy — and permit instead the transformation of public discourse into a one-way gusher from the most powerful?

Earlier Courts took this danger seriously. In 1969, for example, in a decision written by moderate justice Byron White, the Supreme Court noted in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC that: “It is the purpose of the 1st Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market...”

To me — and, I believe, our Founders — democracy depends, moreover, on citizens’ right not just to be heard but a corollary, a right to hear diverse points of view necessary to make informed choices. In 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote that “[T]he basis of our governments...[is] the opinion of the people...” and stressed therefore that we must “give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people...”