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Stealing the First Amendment from the People

by Matthew E. Crow on Jan 26, 2010

Last week’s Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which freed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on election campaigns, greatly compromises the integrity of all three branches of the federal government. Its most dangerous consequence has so far been overlooked, and that is the co-optation of American citizens into contributing to campaigns they do not support.

The origins of the First Amendment lie in concern for the liberty of individual conscience and the right of citizens to petition and assemble for political purposes. Both aim to protect the equality of the citizenry before the law, a democratic ideal as old as the Greeks and one that suffered a major blow in the Citizens United decision.
 
The First Amendment shields from government regulation the belief, worship and speech acts of the people. It does so for the sake of individual liberty and the maintenance of a vibrant, equitable arena of participatory public speech and action. Both the extension of personal liberties to corporations and the now de-facto unimpeachable perch of those corporations in the democratic sphere established by the U.S. Constitution are incompatible with the spirit and letter of the First Amendment. In the final analysis, the Citizens United decision assists in making public deliberation constitutionally undemocratic.
 
In light of the decision, the 1786 Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom is emphatically relevant, as the intellectual and institutional predecessor of the First Amendment. Thomas Jefferson drafted the bill as part of a report for the revision of the state’s laws in 1779, and James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, ushered the bill through the Virginia legislature.
 
The law recognized religious equality and accomplished the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia. Bolstered by an increasing and newly active population of Baptists in the state, Jefferson wrote in his draft that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.”
 
Leaping to the present: the Court has formalized the establishment of a new “church” in the structure of the federal government. The implications of the Citizens United decision for health care, to take one example, are staggering. If every citizen is required by a new law to purchase health insurance from private companies, these companies, under full protection of the law, will be able to use the profits gained from millions of new customers for political campaigns in unlimited amounts. This arrangement will ensure that any efforts on the part of consumers to suggest or hear of alternatives to the current system will be drowned out.
 
Tax dollars, collected from the people by force of law, are in the possession of large banks as the result of successive bailouts by the government. These banks can now use that money to seal off any efforts at banking reform, whether those efforts flow from executive or legislative energy.
 
Newly minted fans of the First Amendment on the right will say: Well, fine, we can solve that problem by just getting rid of health care reform and government intervention in the banking sector. But in the era of corporate welfare similar subsidization occurs in any case where tax dollars flow to large corporations in the form of grants, contracts or tax breaks.
 
Before the Citizens United decision, the people were already forced to compete in a rigged market of policy initiatives. Now they are compelled by law to furnish the means of political success, in the form of capital, to already well capitalized and adversarial private interests.
 
We need no further evidence that the Court has joined opinion makers in establishing corporate capitalism as a state religion. It is now constitutional dogma, ritualized and enforced from the top down. What gets lost? In a word, democracy.

Matthew E. Crow is a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA and a writer for the History News Service.