Citizens United has become synonymous with too much money in politics, corporate personhood, the abolition of democracy, and the Koch brothers. This is a misunderstanding. The heart of the decision is that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.
As an American, I agree with the decision. The government has no business regulating political speech. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It is quite clear that any law that abridges speech is unconstitutional. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his decision, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” Congress can’t ban books, advertisements or movies. The dissent’s theory would allow Congress to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books and on blogs. In the end, although the regulation may have had benevolent intentions, it amounted to censorship. As Justice Kennedy wrote, “This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”
Another misunderstood part of the case is the issue of corporate personhood. Corporations are not evil as opponents of the decision assume, nor did the decision make corporations people. Corporations are composed of humans and human interests. Corporations can be responsible. If they can violate laws, then the same laws also protect them. The government has a “Direct and Serious” impact on corporations. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that corporations have cause for concern regarding government regulation. Naturally, they should be able to speak about their interests. Contrary to arguments denouncing Citizens United, corporations are not buying votes. Votes cannot be purchased. Corrupt representatives are not the fault of the First Amendment, nor are voters that are swayed by fancy advertisements.
The foremost misunderstanding of Citizens United is that it was a landmark case. At the end of the day, the decision merely corrected contradictions in the law. The law at issue in Citizens United permitted the New York Times to endorse candidates while making it a federal crime for non-media corporations to do so. It also made it a crime for labor unions to distribute an endorsement of President Obama for re-election to its members. There is no principled way to distinguish between media corporations and other corporations. “Media” corporations have free speech rights that allowed for the publication of such things as the Pentagon Papers. Without being seen as entities deserving free speech protections, corporations are unable to defend themselves against accusations of libel, as in the 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan.
This is not to say that there are no legitimate counterpoints to the case. Some argue that allowing corporate money to flood elections will corrupt democracy. However, Justice Kennedy acknowledges this openly in his decision and responses. “Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way”. It is the responsibility of the beholder to judge the information, not the responsibility of the government to prevent it from being produced.
The decision has not reshaped (for the worse) the way elections are conducted. Even though President Obama called Citizens United “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans”, it seem that his policies of corporate favoritism do more to further those industry interests than does the Citizens United decision.