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Alaska Editorial: Measures could inadvertently crimp the country's free-press guarantee

Posted: October 15, 2013 - 12:08am

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

The voters of Haines recently amended that small Southeast Alaska town’s municipal charter to declare that the constitutional rights outlined in the document are guaranteed only to individual humans and not to artificial entities, such as corporations.

The idea is to express dissatisfaction with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations, unions and other groups to spend money to elect specific candidates. That dissatisfaction is understandable, but critics need to think a little more deeply before pushing to nullify the free speech rights of all corporations.

That thinking, of course, focuses on the deep pockets of big corporations and their ability to influence elections after the court decision. The corporate spending is viewed as so foul and corrosive that it must be stopped. So, if our courts insist the Constitution protects this spending as a form of free speech, opponents assert, then the only solution is to void free speech guarantees for the corporations.

That logic forgets that there are many types of corporations. Voiding all their free speech rights would be far too drastic a step.

This strikes particularly close to home for media corporations. Should a newspaper’s right to comment on political matters, free of government oversight, be nullified simply because it is owned by a corporation? What about the rights of television networks, wire services, blogs, social network sites and other forms of media that often are owned by corporations? Should the government eliminate their fundamental right as well?

Justice John Roberts saw the problem with nullifying corporate speech rights when writing in the Citizens United decision: “(The) theory, if accepted, would empower the government to prohibit newspapers from running editorials or opinion pieces supporting or opposing candidates for office, so long as the newspapers were owned by corporations — as the major ones are,” he wrote.

Opponents of the Citizens United decision might not intend to take away the free speech rights of media corporations, but the nullification of those rights for all corporations would have that effect. It’s not clear to us what the solution is, but nullifying free speech rights is not it.

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