Friday, January 22, 2010

The Bad News (One) Bears

This week democracy activists are bemoaning the Supreme Court's decision to allow unlimited spending by corporations on political campaigns in "Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission." Having read Oliver Wendell Holmes in graduate school, I can't say I was surprised by this ruling in favor of "the personhood of corporations," although I was appalled to see how Justice Kennedy used the language of free speech and resistance to censorship to justify the closer connection between power and money that will invariably result from overturning a century of election finance regulations.

The website of plaintiff Citizens United, a conservative interest group that also launches invective against the United Nations, Hillary Clinton, and the ACLU, along with its "limited government" rhetoric, advertises its YouTube channel, Facebook page, and Twitter feed.

What much of the coverage is missing, however, is the role that the advent of the Internet plays in the logic of the court's reversal of prior law aimed at containing corruption and conflict of interest.

With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are “‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.”

Check out the weird justification for corporate blogging and Internet astroturfing that the decision also contains.

Soon, however, it may be that Internet sources, such as blogs and social networking Web sites, will provide citizens with significant information about political candidates and issues. Yet, §441b would seem to ban a blog post expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate if that blog were created with corporate funds. See 2 U. S. C. §441b(a); MCFL, supra, at 249. The First Amendment does not permitCongress to make these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.

Meanwhile, transparency activists saddened by the decision are reminding their supporters of the need for more data visualizations that show complex financial transactions between corporations and political stakeholders. is also hosting a Decodeathon to develop more free open source tools to make it possible for "publicly available government documentation be citable on the web on a paragraph level."

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Blogger Jardinero1 said...

The ruling did nothing to diminish transparency. In fact, since disclosure is still a requirement I believe transparency is increased. Which would you rather see, an ad declaring "Exxon-Mobil supports candidate A because she wants drilling on the north slope" or an ad by some group funded by Exxon-Mobil with a name like "Citizens for Responsible Resource Management support candidate A because she wants drilling on the north slope"?

It's both hyperbole and factually incorrect to suggest that this ruling overturns a century of regulations. The first campaign finance laws with any real teeth date to the mid 1970's. And this ruling only overturns but one piece in the body of law that has arisen since then.

9:48 AM  

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