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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Regulating Corporate Freedom of Speech

Bill Moyers recently interviewed Trevor Potter who heads the law practice of the firm Caplin & Drysdale in Washington and served as general counsel to John McCain during the Senator's 2000 and 2008 Presidential Campaigns. He's former chairman of the federal election commission and the founding president of the campaign legal center.

Potter had this to say: "Corporations exist solely to make money. Amassing economic power. They want, if they could get it out of government, monopolies. They want the ability to defeat their competitors. And if they can use government to do that, they will. Individuals have a whole range of interests. Individuals go to church, they care about religious and social issues, they care about the future of the country. They're voters.

So, they have a range of issues at stake that corporations don't have. Corporations just want to make money. So, if you let the corporation with a privileged economic legal position loose in the political sphere, when we're deciding who to elect, I think you are giving them an enormous advantage over individuals and not a healthy one for our democracy."

Blogger Julian Friedman offers this reflection on the interview:

The assumption made is that corporate free speech is biased by definition since it is completely interested with increasing short-term profit. But I don't see why this must be the case. In fact, there are a growing number of counterexamples to that thesis. Indeed, they would seem to represent the very essence of corporate social responsibility.

The promissory agreement to further the interest of shareholders first is the corporate motivator. But there is also no reason why shareholders should consider merely short-term financial gain to the exclusion of all else. Socially-responsible corporations for example would not automatically lobby to sacrifice consumer safety requirements in the interest of higher profits.

Thus, if corporations behaved more civically, there would be little reason to gag their speech. It's the arguable abuse of their great influence today that threatens to drown out citizens' voices which is the problem. As with monopolies, it's the abuse of power that is dangerous. Not necessarily the power itself.

Read it all here.

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