Sunday, January 31, 2010

Of Persons, Corporations, Money and Speech

These are the times that try men's souls. On the one hand we have the Supreme Court of the United States empowering corporations at a time when they already come far too close to owning our representatives, our government and our country. On the other, we have a populace that doesn't understand how our most fundamental principles tie to either this question or the trying of accused terrorists.

Someone MUST speak out about the nature of our Rights and our Constitution.

We seem to have forgotten the truths that our founding fathers took to be self-evident, the principles to which our nation was dedicated. Many on the left are decrying the recent Citizens United Supreme Court decision, while at the same time civil libertarians often thought to be on the left have spoken in defense of the decision. As it turns out the questions here are not simple, and to work them out requires really knowing both how the system works and what the underlying principles are. It's not easy stuff, and we seem unprepared for it.

Let me start by agreeing with those who fear undue influence and power is given to the corporations, domestic, foreign and multinational by this decision. This decision does, in fact, remove important safeguards against the super-rich corporations overwhelming our electoral process with huge amounts of money. Not only that, but it opens our government to the influence of foreign money and foreign-owned corporations. It's easy to sneer at that last accusation (one Supreme Court Justice did just that), claiming that the decision only applies to US corporations, but that ignores the fact that being incorporated in one of the United States is very different from being owned exclusively or mostly by US citizens. Citgo, for instance is incorporated in the US, but it is owned by Petróleos de Venezuela. It is a "US corporation", ye, but it is also an entirely "foreign owned corporation". If Citgo has a right of free speech that allows it to finance political campaigns in the US, then Hugo Chavez who runs the government of Venezuela, who owns PDV, who owns Citgo, has that right. Many people think that this is not a good thing.

But let me also say that people like Glenn Greenwald and Jonathan Turley also have a very real and valid point that the decision in Citizens United, which empowers Citgo, and PDV and Venezuela and Chavez is based on long standing principles of Constitutional law, law that has both important practical justifications and a basis in our most sacred principles. Greenwald has written on the topic at "What the Supreme Court got right" and "Follow-up on the Citizens United case". I recommend reading both, though I do not agree with everything that he wrote. Turley wrote a lengthy commentary in his blog and spoke about the topic on a segment of Countdown.

Greenwald makes the point that none of the nine Justices agree with those of us who argue that it is a problem that the law holds that corporations are people and that money is speech. On the latter he lays out a rather specific challenge. He says that if we are to claim that speech isn't money then we have to explain what will protect us from laws like the following (he gives several hypothetical examples, I'm using one for brevity):

"It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money to criticize laws enacted by the Congress; all citizens shall still be free to express their views on such laws, provided no money is spent;"

My own response is that this is absolutist rhetorical flummery, that if money is speech, you get into problems just as deep:

If money is speech, then the First Amendment must give me the right to pay my Congressman to take an action I wish him to, because I have the right to tell him what I want him to do.

Clearly I have a right to tell my representative what I want him to do. If I cannot, I have lost not only the right of free speech, but also the right to representation, which is definitionally inherent in a Republic. But that doesn't give me the right to put my money where my mouth is and pay him to vote my way. That's bribery and corruption.

In the end, I do not believe that either absolute extreme, that money is speech or that money has nothing to do with freedom of speech is tenable, but, and it is a big "but", but Constitutionally protected rights, natural rights tend to be absolutist. That is one of their strengths. "Congress shall make no law..." like "Thou shall commit no murder" (I hope you'll forgive my slightly non-traditional, but I believe accurate translation of the Commandment) is strong because it is a prohibition. once you get into qualifying them you start allowing loop holes and we all know where that gets you.

I think we need to recognize that Constitutionally protected rights are not an artifact of law, are not granted by the government, judges or the Founders, but are rather natural rights, with which we are endowed by our Creator, whatever you consider said Creator to be. Corporations, are NOT natural, though. They ARE social constructs, the product of law, goverment and the consensus of society. When we constitute them, when we incorporate them as entities within our legal system, I think we have to say that they have rights, but that those rights are not inherent, that they derive from the rights of the people they comprise, and who create the corporations. We endow the corporations with rights and we can limit them.

Similarly, money is a social construct and while there are certainly moral aspects to money and to its use, it is not, in and of itself, speech. It can be used to enable or discourage speech and can be used to violate the rights of others, or with deference to their rights or to empower people, ourselves or others with regard to their rights. "Money is speech, speech is protected, money is thus protected" is a nice syllogism. It is simple and understandable, it is easy to derive conclusions from it. But it is oversimplified.

Einstein was right. "Make everything as simple as possible. And no Simpler."

Where does that analysis get us? Certainly NOT to a Constitutional amendment. But, given that corporations are created by legislation, Why can't legislation explicitly limit and define the rights and obligations they have? And since corporations are primarily commercial in nature, why can't regulating them be a federal function? The state laws define and control corporations and the methods of incorporation, but in the name of regulating interstate commerce, cannot the federal government set certain limits on corporations and the laws that control them?

This ties in to a number of issues before us today:
  1. The empowering of corporations on the grounds of free speech.
  2. Regarding money as speech and thus giving the extremely rich a greater practical right to "speak".
  3. The influence of foreign money through the free speech of US incorporated, foreign owned corporations.
  4. The right of all US citizens and anyone in the US to habeas corpus and trial by jury.
  5. "Getting FISA right" and the potential abuse of the USA PATRIOT Act.
  6. A system which allows the government to try accused terrorists in whichever court they know they can convict them in.
For all of these, it is important to understand the nature of rights in US Constitutional principles. We need to ground these discussions not only in what makes us safe from terrorists or corporations or corruption, but in terms of the natural rights that all men are endowed with and which we the people do not allow our government to violate. Our fundamental, natural rights are not granted by the government, the King, or the Constitution, and understanding that, and the principles our whole system is based on is both important and sadly lacking in the discussion of a lot of these and other critical issues.