Steve Chapman

If corporate advocacy may be forbidden as it was under the law in question, it’s not just Exxon Mobil and Citigroup that are rendered mute. Nonprofit corporations set up merely to advance goals shared by citizens, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association, also have to put a sock in it. So much for the First Amendment goal of fostering debate about public policy.

It is often argued that corporate speech may be banned because corporations enjoy certain privileges afforded by law. But it’s a longstanding constitutional axiom that the government may not require the surrender of constitutional rights in exchange for state-furnished benefits -- say, barring criticism of Congress by residents of public housing.

Once you grant the government that sort of power, it is bound to expand. Newspapers could be forbidden to make endorsements. Right now, media companies are exempt from the ban. But why should a newspaper be free to spend money urging voters to support a candidate, while other companies are not?

Critics fear that freed from constraints, giant corporations will burn vast sums to help or hurt politicians. In reality, most business people are not about to plunge into divisive election campaigns, for fear of antagonizing customers.

Apple and Microsoft are not going to be squaring off to see who can elect the next president. In Illinois, corporations have always been allowed to spend money on elections. They rarely take any noticeable role.

In the end, the right to speak does not mean the power to control the political process. It merely means the right to convey views that citizens are free to reject -- which, if they distrust corporate power, is exactly what they are likely to do.

Under this ruling, corporations will be allowed to speak about politics, just as they may speak about their products. In both realms, though, the effort is wasted unless they offer something their audience wants. The marketplace of ideas is not so different from the marketplace of goods.

Corporations have the freedom to communicate what they want. But the people still have the ultimate right: the right to say no.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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