Thursday, in a 5-4 ruling on the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned decades of legal restrictions on corporations' ability to fund political advertising with the intent of influencing the outcome of an election. In the majority opinion delivered by Reagan appointee Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court stated that certain laws restricting corporate spending during elections violate the First Amendment's protection of free speech.
So what does this mean? Basically, the Supreme Court has determined, one, that for-profit business organizations have the same rights to free speech as individual people — that corporate speech is equivalent to the speech of an American citizen — and two, that restricting corporations' spending on political advertising during elections effectively restricts their right to speak — that not allowing corporations to spend unlimited money on political ads is essentially the same as forbidding an individual from expressing an opinion. According to the court's conservative majority, corporations should be granted the right to purchase as much political advertising as their leaders wish, whenever they wish, to influence any election they please.
This means that Burger King is now allowed to buy television ads attacking a candidate who wants to tighten food safety standards. Exxon Mobil can finance radio campaigns in support of politicians who oppose climate change legislation. Instead of just hiring lobbyists to try to influence politicians who have already been elected, corporations can now spend literally billions of dollars campaigning directly for their favorite candidates — the candidates whose policies are most likely to increase their profits — and attacking any candidates they oppose.
In a scathing dissent, Justice Paul Stevens strongly disagreed that businesses are entitled under the Constitution to the same free speech rights as American citizens, and warned of potentially serious consequences to this ruling, including the possibility that giving foreign-owned businesses the right to purchase political advertising might lead to foreign nations directly influencing our elections:
In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.
Justice Stevens also noted that in making this ruling, the court was both overstepping its bounds in ruling on constitutional issues it did not need to directly address in order to rule on this specific case, and overriding a century of legal precedent regarding government's ability to regulate corporations, including two previous Supreme Court cases.
Many members of Congress (including Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and John McCain) have expressed their disapproval of this ruling. Representative Alan Grayson has introduced several bills in the House meant to push back against the Citizens United decision, and President Obama has vowed to work with Congress to try to create new legal restrictions on corporate spending that might mitigate this decision's potential effects.
In the meantime, in the day since the ruling, a number of legal analysts have weighed in with detailed predictions on how the Citizens United case may dramatically change how democracy in the United States works (or doesn't). For more information on the ramifications of this ruling, (from sharper legal minds than mine), check out these expert analyses of Citizens United::
The Pinocchio Project, by Slate's always-astute legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick
Analysis: A few open, or not so open, questions, as SCOTUSblog
How the Citizens United Case Affects Money and Politics and Transparency as We Know It, at the Sunlight Foundation.