Does Comedy Central Have a Right to Freedom of Speech?

Terry Jeffrey

4/25/2012 12:01:00 AM - Terry Jeffrey
Does Comedy Central have a right to free speech?

Some congressional Democrats believe no association of human beings formed in the manner Comedy Central has been formed ought to have freedom of speech. Accordingly, they have sponsored constitutional amendments to incorporate this principal into our basic law.

This is no joke.

The First Amendment says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

On Capitol Hill last week, several congressmen and senators held a forum to draw attention to their efforts to ratify a constitutional amendment that -- at a minimum -- strips corporations of freedom of speech.

They have offered multiple amendments. Some seem to deny corporations all constitutional rights. Some focus more narrowly on limiting, or regulating, the money that could be raised and spent supporting or opposing candidates for office. All would diminish the Bill of Rights.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucuses with the Democrats, was a leading voice at the forum. He has cosponsored an amendment with Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida that may be the most radical of all.

The key language in the Sanders-Deutch Amendment says: "The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons and do not extend to for-profit corporations, limited liability companies, or other private entities established for business purposes or to promote business interests under the laws of any state, the Untied States, or any foreign state."

It also says: "Such corporate and other private entities established under law are subject to regulation by the people through the legislative process so long as such regulations are consistent with the powers of Congress and the States and do not limit the freedom of the press."

How would this amendment apply to Comedy Central?

Well, Comedy Central is merely a cog in a larger conglomerate called Viacom -- a self-described "multinational company." Some of Viacom's other components include MTV, Nickelodeon, BET, Spike TV, TV Land and Paramount Pictures.

Given that Viacom is not a "natural person" but a "for-profit corporation," the Sanders-Deutch amendment literally says "the rights protected by the Constitution of the United States ... do not extend" to it.

The Fourth Amendment says the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, and papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." Does the Sanders-Deutch Amendment, therefore, mean Congress could pass a law empowering federal agents to enter Comedy Central, and other Viacom facilities, and seize its papers without showing probable cause or securing a warrant?"

Why not? Sanders-Deutch expressly says the rights protected by the Constitution "do not extend to for-profit corporations."

Some might object that a law targeting Viacom in this way would violate the principle of due process.

But in a nation whose Constitution included the Sanders-Deutch Amendment, the federal agents carrying out the congressional command to invade Viacom's offices could say: So what?

After all, the Fifth Amendment says "nor shall any person ... be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." It does not say "any corporation." And, again, Sanders-Deutch says constitutional rights are for "natural persons and do not extend to for-profit corporations."

The second element of the Sanders-Deutsch Amendment appears no less radical. It says Congress can regulate corporations and other private entities "so long as such regulations are consistent with the powers of Congress and the States and do not limit the freedom of the press."

Why does it expressly carve out just that part of the Bill of Rights that protects freedom "of the press"? The First Amendment, as it currently stands, also protects the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech generally, the freedom to peaceably assemble and the freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Yes, many of this nation's most powerful -- and liberal -- news organizations are corporations and private entities that would like to keep -- and ought to be able to keep -- their freedom "of the press." But are there not also many corporations and private entities in this country today that engage freely in exercising their religion, their right of speech, their right of assembly and their right to redress the government when they have a grievance with its policies?

No doubt Comedy Central -- and its parent Viacom -- enjoy exercising many of these rights and ought to be able to continue doing so.

Referring to the forum at which Sanders and Deutch promoted their proposed constitutional amendment, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said that her party now has a "clear agenda" to "amend the Constitution to rid it of this ability for special interests to use secret, unlimited, huge amounts of money flowing to campaigns." She did not specify which amendment this agenda embraced.

Does it seek to abridge just freedom of speech -- or the entire Bill of Rights?