Free Speech for Foreign Corporations

There is lots going around about Justice Alito’s Joe Wilson moment at the State of the Union address.  In reference to the recent Citizens United case, Barack Obama said:

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems.

To this, Alito, J. was clearly seen contorting his face and mouthing the words “not true.” And it wasn’t true. As Linda Greenhouse notes, the Court did not overrule a century of law. And according to PolitiFact, the court did not reach the question of free speech for foreign corporations:

The majority opinion, authored by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, maintained that the court was not specifically overturning this barrier to foreign campaign spending, essentially saying that it was outside the scope of the opinion.

“We need not reach the question whether the Government has a compelling interest in preventing foreign individuals or associations from influencing our Nation’s political process,” the majority wrote.

While Obama’s statement was indeed not true, I wish it were true. There is nothing pernicious about foreign corporations being able to buy TV ads making a case for how Americans ought to vote. The idea of a corporate nationality is murky to begin with. Should the nationality be determined by where the corporation’s headquarters are located? By where it does the most business? By the nationalities of its shareholders, of which none may constitute a majority?

But more importantly, the case for free speech is persuasive not because it gives people the right to speak in a vacuum, but because it gives people the right to listen to whatever speakers they wish. For the government to hold that I do not have the right to listen to what foreign corporations have to say, but that this is nevertheless consistent with the principle of free speech is shockingly Orwellian. Even if foreign corporations want to argue that the US government is evil and should be overthrown, what is the harm in that? If they are wrong, I can ignore them, and if they are right, I would want to know.

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