What 'Citizens United' Does for US Companies, Unions

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This is the VOA Special English Economics Report.

Laws in the United States and other countries treat a corporation like a person. We talked last week about how this idea developed a long time ago.

In the United States, the Constitution protects freedom of speech. The Supreme Court has recognized that this is also true for corporations. But there was still a question about whether corporations could have the same freedom of political speech as real people do.

During the two thousand eight presidential campaign, a nonprofit corporation released a film critical of Hillary Clinton. The group, Citizens United, wanted to make "Hillary: The Movie" available on cable TV. But it did not want to violate a limit on so-called electioneering communication by corporations and unions within thirty days of a primary election.

Citizens United took the Federal Election Commission to court to fight the law.

In January of this year, the Supreme Court, by the narrowest majority, voted five to four to end the ban. The ruling clears the way for corporations and unions to use their own money to support the election or defeat of a candidate. However, they are still barred from directly giving money to candidates. And the court did not consider the question of existing laws designed to prevent foreign influence in the political process.

Since the nineteen forties, the traditional place for political speech by American unions and companies has been through political action committees. William Van Alstyne is a professor at the William and Mary Law School in Virginia.

WILLIAM VAN ALSTYNE: "If the shareholder felt it to their interest, if they wanted to contribute to a political action committee representing the business interest of the company, then they would contribute to the political action committee. Same thing on the labor side. So members of the union might be encouraged to contribute to the PAC -- it's called a P-A-C. The PAC would then determine how best to use the money, politically speaking, in campaigns for and against candidates, ballot issues and all the rest."

Now, says Professor Van Alstyne, the decision in Citizens United raises new issues. For example, the court will have to rule on whether companies with majority foreign ownership can enjoy the same expanded rights of political speech.

President Obama denounced the ruling in his State of the Union speech to Congress in January. This week, Chief Justice John Roberts told law students that "anybody can criticize the Supreme Court." But, in answer to a question, he said the setting was "very troubling." Six of the nine justices, including the chief justice, were sitting right in front of the president.

And that's the VOA Special English Economics Report, written by Mario Ritter. You can find last week's report on corporations at voaspecialenglish.com. I'm Steve Ember.

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