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Penn Law debate on Citizens United: Does money equal free speech?

November 22, 2011

By Nicole Greenstein C’14

Professors Lillian BeVier, Theodore Ruger and Arlen Specter
Professors Lillian BeVier, Theodore Ruger and Arlen Specter

On Monday, November 21, a crowd of students and faculty convened in Penn Law’s Gittis Hall for a debate on the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. First Amendment expert and University of Virginia Law Professor Lillian BeVier was opposite Penn Law Professor Theodore Ruger, a Constitutional law expert, and the debate was moderated by former U.S Senator Arlen Specter, an adjunct professor at the Law School.
 
Sponsored by the Penn Law Federalist Society, the event delved into the intricacies of the Supreme Court’s decision while also looking ahead at future implications that the case might have in the political environment. The majority opinion in Citizens United held that prohibition of all independent campaign contributions by corporations and unions was invalid, interpreting their campaign contribution rights to be the same as those of individual citizens.

Professor BeVier sided with the majority opinion, defending the argument that corporations should be protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. Professor Ruger took the opposing view, arguing that although corporations have certain constitutional rights, they should not enjoy the same protections as individuals.
 
BeVier took to the podium first to share the justifications behind her support for the Citizens United decision.
 
“The reaction to Citizens United has been nothing short of hysterical, which is kind of puzzling since the holding actually conforms to well-established and deeply-embedded First Amendment principles,” she said.
 
BeVier refuted critics’ view that the Citizens United case is an “apocalypse in the making” that will strip away power from the people. By giving corporations the right to spend money, BeView asserted that these corporations will then direct their advocacy to the people. With corporations informing the public of their views about which candidatesthey deem fit to run for federal office, Citizens United instead offers the public a more diverse, robust range of voices to chose from, she said.
 
“Instead of taking power away from the people, citizens united bestowed on them an opportunity previously denied to them,” BeVier explained. “Namely, the power to hear and evaluate for themselves arguments from sources previously silenced.”
 
“In my view, Citizens United got it right,” she noted at the conclusion of her speech.
 

Professor Ted Ruger
Professor Ted Ruger

Ruger next offered his response in which he presented a case against the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.
 
“This is the Roberts Court’s new favorite plaything,” Ruger said. “The First Amendment is the repository for this Court’s rights-creating project, and in this case, creating and entrenching rights for private corporations against government regulation.”
 
Although Ruger argued that corporations do have certain constitutional rights, he disagreed with the amount of protection afforded to corporations as if they were “human beings.”
 
Ruger did agree with Professor BeVier on one point: the question of whether or not money equals speech. “I agree with Professor BeView there,” he said. “In today’s politics, the ability to spend money does equate to speech.”

 

However, Ruger explained how in the past the courts have upheld necessary restrictions on such corporate speech, but with this case the Supreme Court overturned such rulings in one fell swoop.
 
“For the Court to fairly clumsily wander in with no originalist, textualist or doctrinal mandate and reconfigure fundamentally what congress did, does speak to a profound assertiveness — and even activism — on the part of the court,” Ruger asserted in summing up his argument.
 
BeVier followed up with a rebuttal, in which she argued that she does not trust Congress to regulate campaign finance. Since members of Congress know the inner workings of campaign finance reform, she expressed worry that they might use this knowledge to “extend their time in office.”
 
Although Specter was partial to Congress being a senator himself, he did acknowledge the validity to BeVier’s claim.
 
“When you say you don’t trust congress, you have a lot of company,” Specter said, adding that today’s polls show a loss of faith and confidence in the institutions of government to solve our problems. He even pointed to “the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers” as evidence that people are starting to think Congress cannot handle America’s troubles.
 
One audience member, an L’13 student who wished to remain anonymous due to his position on the Graduate and Professional Student Association, appreciated how relevant the debate was to the current state of politics in America.
 
“It is important for people to have faith in government, but the seed of our mistrust lies in corruption,” he said. “Personally I think Citizens United allowed more corruption in, so I was interested to hear the other side of the issue.”
 
Federalist Society President Daniel Pollack L’12, thought the event was a resounding success.
 
“I thought it was a great event,” he said. “I was really thankful that Professor BeVier, Professor Ruger, and Senator Specter were able to come out tonight.”