I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t make an informed comment on the legal aspects of yesterday’s SCOTUS campaign-finance ruling (though I know plenty of lawyers who are likely disgusted with it, including some former Supreme Court clerks). But what I find wrong with it is that it contradicts the heart of one of the most compelling argument for free speech.
J.S. Mill, the grand-daddy of liberalism, argued for freedom of speech on many grounds, but one of the most important was that we can only arrive at the truth if all points of view get a vigorous airing. We need to be able to change course, to correct our views, by being exposed to a variety of competing truth-claims. This is an inherent part of what it means to be a human being realizing our nature as what Mill called “progressive beings.” By engaging in dialogue and argument with competing views, we may come to see that we were mistaken, or that we had overlooked part of the truth. At the very least, we’ll be strengthened in our own views by testing them against counter-arguments.
However, given this view of why free speech matters, the absurdity of treating corporations as “persons” with free speech rights becomes readily apparent. A corporation is not a “progressive being” that can correct its errors and come to a greater comprehension of the truth. It is an entity driven entirely by the profit motive. A corporation will propagate a particular message only to the extent that the message serves that interest: it’s not concerned with the truth.
You might say by way of rejoinder that it doesn’t matter whether corporations are interested in pursuing the truth. All that matters is that people are exposed to the widest possible range of ideas, regardless of their provenance. But this ignores that fact that, with unlimited corporate political “speech” we are no longer working with the model of a conversation aimed at truth, but with an attempt to overwhelm and drown competing points of view with a sheer volume of ads, propaganda, etc. The ideal of rational discussion is pretty much explicitly repudiated by allowing corporations to flood the airwaves with whatever “truths” best serve their interests. Free speech, by its very nature, presupposes something like reasoned dialogue; that’s what distinguishes it from propaganda, advertising, and similar endeavors, which are not good-faith arguments, but are aimed at bypassing rational dialogue.
Corporations aren’t persons: they’re money-making enterprises. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but their interests should be subordinated to and circumscribed by those of actual persons.