Despite the cogency of observations by several who have commented on the 5/4 decision in this past week’s SCOTUS case, voiding the century-old act of Congress forbidding ordinary business corporations from spending treasury funds to endorse or oppose candidates for national elective office, my own view is that the dissenting opinion by Justice Stevens on balance had the better of the First Amendment argument. The existing restrictions on campaign finance have been even-handed, insofar as (for example) the United Auto Workers (the UAW) is subject to the same limitation as General Motors itself. Each, in turn, is equally free to establish Political Action Committees (PACS) which may indeed solicit contributions from willing parties (shareholders in the one case, workers in the other) whether to be spent directly to advance the candidacies of particular favored candidates or to advertise for the defeat of others. Funds raised by PACS (whether corporate or labor union PACS) are provided willingly, as are funds contributed by members of the ACLU, Young Socialists, Vegetarians, NARAL, or the Moral Majority. Each of these organizations is properly treated as a First Amendment voluntary association, even as is the NAACP.
But, there has been no reason to regard a GM shareholder likewise, whether individually or institutionally, nor a GM employee likewise – insofar as his or her UAW dues payments to the union are not voluntary but, instead, made as a condition of being employed by GM (pursuant to a collective bargaining contract secured by the UAW via the National Labor Relations Act). I frankly thought that the dissent in this case had the better of it, consistent with pre-existing First Amendment principles (as well as century-old case law as well). The Court’s 5/4 decision is certainly no great calamity (nor is its likely extension in the current Supreme Court term to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment). I think, however, there is more to regret than celebrate in the undoing of the “balance” previously struck.
William Van Alstyne is a noted First Amendment scholar and professor at William and Mary Law School.