The death of campaign finance regulation

Larry Ribstein —  29 March 2011

In Arizona Free Enterprise Club, et al., v. Bennett, et al. and McComish, et al., v. Bennett, et al.  the Court is deciding what seems to be a couple of relatively narrow issues:

(1) Whether the First Amendment forbids states from providing additional government subsidies to publicly financed candidates that are triggered by independent expenditure groups’ speech against such candidates; and (2) whether the First Amendment forbids states from providing additional government subsidies to publicly financed candidates that are triggered by the fundraising or expenditures by these candidates’ privately financed opponents.

But at the oral argument yesterday, the issues seemed a lot broader than that. 

To begin with, excerpts from the argument in the SCOTUSblog summary suggested strongly that the challenger did not have to show that the law actually deterred speech.  Thus, the Chief Justice asked:

If you knew that a $10,000 expenditure that you would make that would support a candidate would result in $30,000, $40,000, $50,000, depending on how many opposition candidates there were available for them, wouldn’t you think twice about it?

In other words, the Court seems inclined to apply basic price theory:  you raise the price of something the demand goes down. 

Citizens United seemed to be a narrow case about “corporate” speech.  But as I pointed out in my First Amendment and Corporate Governance, the opinion didn’t really rest on the special nature of the corporation.  Its whole point was to vigorously guard the public’s right to hear: 

By suppressing the speech of manifold corporations, both for-profit and nonprofit, the Government prevents their voices and viewpoints from reaching the public and advising voters on which persons or entities are hostile to their interests.” Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 130 S. Ct. 876, 907 (2010).  

The Court has also said, in Davis v. Federal Election Commission, that you can’t penalize candidates running on their own money.

Where is all this heading?  Consider Justice Breyer in the Arizona argument:

McCain-Feingold is hundreds of pages, and we cannot possibly test each provision which is related to the others on such a test of whether it equalizes or incentivizes or some other thing, because the answer is normally we don’t know. And it is better to say that it’s all illegal than to subject these things to death by a thousand cuts, because we don’t know what will happen when we start tinkering with one provision rather than another.  That thought went through my mind as I’ve heard this discussion.

I concluded my article linked above on the First Amendment issues concerning regulating the corporate governance processes that produce corporate speech:

In the final analysis, the majority’s listeners’ rights theory may be the only viable approach for dealing with political and commercial corporate speech. Now that it is clear that protection of corporate speech under the First Amendment cannot be diminished by shunting it off into an artificial entity, any justification for regulation would have to grapple with the complexities of corporate finance and governance and with the myriad variations among business and non-business associations. Add the risks inherent in politicians deciding who can speak and the better course is to err on the side of free speech.

Justice Breyer’s observation in the Arizona argument extended that logic beyond corporate speech. 

So Citizens United was not some little case about the power of corporations.  It was part of a bunch of big cases about the death of campaign finance regulation.  It is a passing that I, for one, will not mourn.

Larry Ribstein

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Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

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