'Citizens United' Is Misunderstood

, New York Law Journal

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The article by Jerry Goldfeder and Myrna Perez ("2013's Top Ten: From Voting Rights Act to Moreland Commission," Dec. 30), mischaracterizes the holding in the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. They claim that the court in that case "ruled that corporations, unions and wealthy individuals could spend unlimited sums on behalf of or against a candidate, as long as it was independent of that candidate's campaign." And they claim that as a result, election campaigns were dominated by such independent contributions, most of it by wealthy individuals.

But the court did no such thing with respect to wealthy individuals. It did not even address that issue, which was not part of the case. Unlimited independent electoral advocacy by individuals has been protected by the First Amendment at least since the 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo. Citizens United extended that right to corporations, including not-for-profit "cause" corporations like the NAACP, NARAL and Citizens United, and to labor unions. That may have been significant, but it added no protection for independent electoral spending by wealthy individuals like Bob Perry, Sheldon Adelson, Harold Simmons, George Soros, David Koch, Peter Lewis or Michael Bloomberg that they didn't already have, and have had since at least 1976.

The difficult, complicated and contentious issue of big money in politics, campaign finance laws and their intersection with the First Amendment are often badly misunderstood by the public, especially with respect to key facts that are critical to public policy discussions and debate. It deserves such discussions, but when experts get this wrong, it promotes only misunderstanding.

Ira Glasser
The author is the former executive director of the ACLU.

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