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Citizens United, Appellant, v. Federal Election Commission.

In this very controversial decision, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority held that a prohibition of corporate expenditures on certain types of speech violates the First Amendment. The decision implicates important legal issues of free speech, stare decisis, and judicial restraint. For our purposes, however, I have edited the case down to the passages dealing directly with the constitutionality of, and rationale for, distinguishing corporate from non-corporate speech. Please focus on this distinction.

The First Amendment reads, in relevant part:

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

As a preliminary matter, consider the following questions:

1. Does a literal reading of the First Amendment protect corporate expenditures?
2. Does an originalist reading of the First Amendment, adopted in 1791, protect corporate expenditures? You may recall that incorporation required a special act of the legislature well into the 19th century. Cf. Justice Scalia’s concurrence and Justice Stevens’ dissent.

In answering the latter question, you may want to distinguish between different types of corporations. In particular, many of the arguments and precedents that the Justices discuss relate to news, media, and political organizations, and the petitioner in the case is a non-profit advocacy organization funded mostly by donations from individuals. In this class, we are primarily interested in business corporations.

The main questions to consider are:

3. Do the Justices treat the corporation as an abstraction—a convenient way of summarizing legal relationships between individual human beings? Or as a “concentration of economic power which can compete on equal terms with the modern state” (Berle and Means)? Or as something different altogether?
4. Do the “the procedures of shareholder democracy” protect dissenting shareholders when they disagree with speech approved by (a) boards and managers or (b) majority shareholders? Should they? What would be the contractarian answer?
5. What other arguments for distinguishing corporate and individual speech do the Justices consider?