House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other congressional Democrats are throwing their support behind an effort to overturn a Supreme Court ruling despite warnings by critics that the effort would severely limit free speech.
In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions in campaign materials and advertisements.
Pelosi and Democratic leaders have proposed a three tiered plan to pass what is known as the DISCLOSE Act, that would require corporations and other entities known as "covered organizations" to disclose the amount of money they spend on campaigns within24 hours.
"Covered organizations" would include any corporation, labor union, 501(c) organization, Super PAC and 527 organizations. Most television and radio networks, newspapers, publishing houses, think tanks and movie studios are usually organized under a corporate umbrella.
"We have a clear agenda in this regard: Disclose, reform the system reducing the role of money in campaigns, and amend the Constitution to rid it of this ability for special interests to use secret, unlimited, huge amounts of money flowing to campaigns," Pelosi stated at her Thursday press briefing.
The issue came to light when in 2008 Citizens United, a commercial filmmaker, produced several documentaries including "Hillary: The Movie." The film was highly critical of then-Senator Hillary Clinton. The initial suit was filed when the company sought to run commercials to promote the documentary.
The 5-4 ruling of the court was largely along ideological lines and Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for the majority saying that since the First Amendment does not distinguish between media and other corporations, those restrictions would allow Congress to suppress political speech.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) is one of several Democrats who have proposed bills that if passed would reverse the court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC.
"I've introduced a People's Rights Amendment, which is very simple and straightforward," McGovern said at a forum on Wednesday with Common Cause and other groups. "It would make clear that all corporate entities, for-profit and non-profit alike, are not people with constitutional rights."
However critics of the Democrats' proposal say that if enacted, it would give Congress and the government far too much authority of what corporations and other entities could say about candidates or issues they oppose.
Bradley Smith is a professor of law at Capital University and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. Soon after the Supreme Court's ruling he wrote a column in City Journal supporting the majority's decision by arguing that critics of the decision are mostly "incumbent politicians" who "are keen to maintain a chokehold on such speech."
"What Citizens United actually does is empower small and midsize corporations – and every incorporated mom and pop falafel joint, local firefighters' union, and environmental group – to make its voice heard in campaigns with hiring an army of lawyers or asking the FEC how it may speak," Smith wrote.