Corporate Spending on Political Speech

I’ve commented before on the explicitly liberal (in the contemporary sense of the word) turn that Newsweek magazine has recently taken.  While I’ve always viewed the magazine as having a liberal bias, until recently it came across as liberal reporters attempting to present the facts.  Now they’ve quit reporting the news (because it’s so readily available elsewhere) to focus on liberal commentary on the news.

The February 1st edition runs two columns criticizing the recent Supreme Court decision dropping limits on corporate spending on political speech.  Jonathan Alter says, “In a devastating decision, the high court cleared the way for one of those corporate takeovers you read about, only much bigger.”  Stuart Taylor, Jr. says the ruling unleashes “… corporate executives to pour unlimited amounts of stockholders’ money—without their consent—into adds supporting or attacking federal candidates.  Indeed the 5-4 decision would allow any big company to spend a fortune attacking candidates whom many, or even most, of its stockholders would rather support.”

First, let me say that I agree with Alter’s and Taylor’s implication that most politicians are sleazebags whose votes can be bought, and who can’t be trusted to act in the public interest, even if they have an idea of what that is.  I also agree with their implication that a major motivation of politicians is getting elected and re-elected, and that they will stoop pretty low to enhance their electoral chances.

Setting that aside (because my intention here isn’t to bash politicians), if Alter and Taylor believe we should limit the political speech of corporations, why not start with the Washington Post Company, the owner of Newsweek?  Why should they be free to spout their liberal ideology, while muzzling other corporations?  The same question applies to News Corp, the owner of the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and other media outlets.

Taylor has an answer for that: “The First Amendment explicitly protects freedom ‘of the press’ as well as of speech.”  But that doesn’t seem like much of an answer to me.  All that says is, “We’re a media company, so we shouldn’t be limited in what we say, but other corporations shouldn’t have the same rights we do.”  Is there any logic in that?  Why should some corporations have an unlimited right to political speech while others are limited?

I see this in politics all the time: people argue that certain rules should be applied to everyone else but them, because for some reason they are different and deserve the exception.  If the Washington Post Company is protected by the First Amendment, why would other corporations not be entitled to the same protection?

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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