Much of the outcry about Citizens United has focused on its anticipated impact on elections, see here and here, as well it might since the decision was, after all, one about the proper interpretation of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, aka McCain-Feingold. However, for my money (no pun intended), its most pernicious impact is likely to be not on elections (there was already a lot of corporate money in elections), but rather its influence on the future interpretation of the commercial speech doctrine. The commercial speech doctrine permits the regulation of commercial speech for its truth.
What has this got to do with political speech you might say? Nothing, unless one considers why for-profit corporations get into campaign finance or lobbying in the first place. They do so for the same reasons they engage in commercial speech; to further the economic interests of the corporation (and/or the shareholders if you prefer). Even though the Supreme Court did not hold in Citizens United that a corporation enjoys the same First Amendment rights as a human being, the rhetoric in the opinion, what I call the "anti-discrimination rhetoric," is likely to be used as if the Court had said just that and in support of an argument that the Court should not "discriminate" against commercial speech and relegate it to the category of an intermediate scrutiny test but rather should apply to it a strict scrutiny test, a New York Times v. Sullivan test. Suffice it to say that this permits regulation in theory, but little in practice.
There is evidence that Citizens United will be used this way if you look at how at how Bellotti was used. Bellotti was another corporate election law case. It was decided in 1978, only two years after Virginia Pharmacy, the case in which the commercial speech doctrine was first announced. It has been repeatedly used to argue for expanded protection for commercial speech. Most recently in the Supreme court in 2003 in the Nike v. Kaksy case. See here, here and here.
Theoretically Bellotti was a case that had nothing to do with commercial speech. Nevertheless, it has regularly showed up, as it did in Nike, in arguments in favor of more protection for commercial speech, supposedly for the proposition that speech is not less valuable because a corporation utters it. May be. But consider this, if we (or the Court) gets this argument tangled up with some notion that First Amendment protection is offered on the basis of some anti-discrimination principle we may be in very deep waters indeed, because for a business corporation its political expression is surely tangential to its main organizing purpose. It's core expressive activity is commercial speech. If we are protecting the speaker then it would seem that its core expressive activity ought to be protected. However, going that way would seemingly wreak havoc on any sort of regulation of commerce. How can you regulate commerce if you can't regulate commercial speech? If the Court goes the way of offering strict scrutiny protection to a lot of commercial speech it may make debate about reform of the financial sector moot. Not to mention the idea that corporations need protection against discrimination is a fairly difficult one to swallow. (It makes for some good editorial cartoons though! This month's Vanity Fair has a great one which you can only see if you buy the magazine; but you can find in the table of contents here under the Vanities section. A similar cartoon showed up earlier in the Boston Phoenix and that one you can view here .)
This is not just a theoretical proposition. There is a case now pending before the Supreme Court which (arguably) involves commercial speech and at least one amicus brief suggests that this is the case in which the Court can resolve the status of commercial speech (in favor of more protection, natch) and answer the question raised but not answered in Nike v. Kasky. Guess which case is included in its list of authorities? Yep. Citizens United. I will save for another post which case this is and where else Citizens United is popping up. But this is one of those First Amendment cases that could have very widespread impacts on all sorts of regulation of business. That may be a happy thing if you think less is more in the regulatory arena for business. May be not so happy if you think the government should have more of a hand in the regulation of the safety of food, drugs or... financial services.
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