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Political Speech and the 1st Amendment
Individuals and corporations are entitled to only limited protection of political speech. Political speech includes the spending or donation of money to political campaigns or undertaking political activism. As such, political contributions by individuals or entities may be subject to regulation. Individuals and businesses are limited in the amount of funds that they can contribute to political candidates for federal office and certain groups that donate to political candidates. Historically, corporations were also limited in their ability to directly fund or undertake political activism. The issue of direct spending in elections came to the forefront in the case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In this case, the court held that corporations hold rights similar to those of individuals with regard to political speech. As such, many of the existing regulations of the amount of funds or activity that a corporation may spend or undertake with regard to political campaigns were held invalid. This case did not, however, affect the legal limits on individuals and organization to make contributions directly to candidates and groups dedicated to making contributions to candidates.
- Note: These provisions apply to federal elections and not state elections. Also, there is currently no limit on the amount of money that an individual or corporation can make to independent-expenditure-only committees, also known as “Super-Pacs”. These groups spend directly on political activity in support of particular candidates.
- Example: A state passes a law that limits the amount of money that citizens and corporations can give directly to state politicians running for office. While giving money is a type of expression that is protected under the 1st Amendment, this restriction upon individual rights aimed at preserving the integrity of the election system may be constitutional.
Discussion: How do you feel about a corporation being deemed to have the same freedom of speech protections as individuals? Should the rights of freedom of speech be weighed against the impact of allowing corporations to impact the outcome of political elections?
- Some would argue that business entities are simply an extension of their owners. As such, they should be afforded protections as individuals. Others would argue that businesses entities are treated as separate from their owners for most purposes, including taxation, property ownership, etc. Because the government recognizes the creation of an entity that is separate in all material ways from its owners, so to should be the separation of rights of the owner and rights of the organization. Lastly, others might argue that a strict reading of the Constitution does not deem business entities to possess the rights of individuals.
Practice Question: Dorothy is very dedicated to supporting her preferred political party and its candidates. She routinely makes donations to candidates and to political groups. She inherits a large sum of money from her grandmother and is considering donating all of the money directly to a candidate that she supports for federal office. Can this result in any legal issues? What are some other options or methods of donating the money in support of the political candidate?
- Generally, an individual is limited in the amount of money she can donate directly to a federal political candidate. She would be subject to state law regarding what she can give to state candidates. The dollar amount is limited with regard to how much can provide to federal candidates and political action committees that give directly to candidates. There is not, however, a limit on the total amount she may give to multiple candidates or PACs. As such, if she is willing to spread her donations around, she has lots of freedom to do so. For a list of the current campaign contribution limitations, click here.