The Union League of Chicago’s Public Affairs Committee presented a forum on money and free speech in American politics coming on the heels of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-2005 (decided January 21, 2010).
Citizens United arose out of a claim that the conservative group’s funding of “Hillary: The Movie”, a rather scathing account of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, violated the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. However, as the case progressed it came to stand for whether it was constitutional to ban corporations and labor unions from using their own general funds in support or in opposition to political candidates.
The Supreme Court ruled that corporations are allowed to spend freely in a supportive manner or in opposition to candidates for federal campaigns, including those for president and for the United States Congress. The Supreme Court’s ruling overturned a 20 year-old ruling that said that corporations could not use money from their general treasuries to pay for campaign ads.
Arguments both in support of or against the Supreme Court’s ruling regarding money and free speech in America politics were led by two local Chicago legal scholars. Robert W. Bennett, a member of the law faculty of Northwestern University School of Law since 1969, took the viewpoint that the decision was wrong on the law. The opposing point of view supporting the propriety of the decision was represented by Richard A. Epstein, the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, who has been teaching at University of Chicago Law School since 1972.
Professor Bennett submitted that he opposed the ruling and its analysis because it would threaten spending controls in campaigns. For example, business corporations have a lot more money to spend perhaps on campaigns than labor unions.
However, Professor Epstein disagreed with this analysis, mainly because corporations have a much greater interest in profits, shareholders, and sales than unions or smaller entities. As such, corporations face a much higher risk of a backlash from its shareholders, the public, and potentially its customers if it expends large sums of its corporate money on campaign advertising for or against a particular candidate. In reply, Professor Bennett conceded that it was unlikely that corporations will begin expending large sums of money on certain campaign ads or in opposition to other campaigns.
Both professors agreed that the immediate effect of the decision in Citizens United would not be felt immediately. Following their comments, both Professor Bennett and Professor Epstein took questions from the audience. Chicago personal injury attorney Robert Kreisman is a member of the Union League Club’s Public Affairs Committee and was present at this forum.
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