[This is the last in a series four posts on Citizens United. The first was Citizens United—The Most Important Decision of the Roberts Court; the second was Citizens United—A Renormalization of First Amendment Law; the third The Manufactured Hysteria Over Citizens United.]
In my first three posts, I showed that Citizens United is far less important for its direct effects than for an analysis that makes clear that speech at election time deserves the full benefit of the First Amendment’s charter of freedom. This decision to follow neutral free speech principles not only prevents judges and legislators from manipulating doctrine to their own advantage, but also helps temper an essential problem for democracy: how to get information about the issues at stake in an election to voters who do not much follow the news and yet may be decisive. Our age of accelerating technology exacerbates this problem, because it multiplies the distractions from public life.
Fortunately, citizens unsurprisingly focus on politics more at election time. Candidates and their supporters also have incentives to provide information that will gain their attention. Hence the importance of speech during campaigns. To be sure, that information of candidates and their supporters will be self-serving, but their opponents have every incentive to counter distortions and falsehoods. As I describe in my book Accelerating Democracy, there is evidence that the more campaign advertisements are aired, the better informed become citizens about candidates’ positions and ideology. Critics lambast 30-second commercials as simplistic and dumb-downed. But for many people, the alternative to a political advertisement is not a policy seminar but a beer commercial.
There are two thoughtful criticisms of the consequences of a free speech regime at election time. Read More »