Guest Column: Why free speech is no longer free

Did you know that corporations can now legally make unlimited anonymous political contributions? That became true last January when the Citizens United v. The Federal Elections Commission case was ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court. The result is that airways across the country are flooded with political attack ads and voters have no way of knowing who is putting up the money.

This act of judicial overreach resulted when the Supreme Court ruled on a case involving a nonprofit corporation (501-C group) called Citizens United, which had tried to disseminate a feature film they had produced entitled “Hillary, The Movie” in anticipation that Senator Clinton would win the nomination. When the Federal Elections Commission ruled that “Hillary” and the trailers promoting the film were in effect campaign ads, the distribution of the film and the trailers were made to follow the same rules as any political message.

Citizens United took their appeal to the Supreme Court and won in a ruling that went even further than they requested and struck down years of precedent in the process. In doing so, this activist Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the same rights as people and that they could donate unlimited amounts of money to 501-C and 527 nonprofit groups. The court also ruled that these groups could, for the first time, run ads against specific candidates as long as they did not work in concert with the individual campaigns. The court further ruled that these 501-C and 527 groups no longer have to reveal who their donors are, leaving the voting public in the dark as to who paid for the ads.

Republicans universally celebrated this groundbreaking ruling knowing that their longtime supporters, big oil, health insurance companies and defense contractors, would now be able to open their coffers and anonymously defeat Democratic candidates. Another provision in the ruling allows corporations for the first time to draw money directly out of their general funds, tapping into their multibillion dollar profits. The result is that the contributions of individual citizens are being drowned out, overwhelmed by millions of new stealth corporate dollars.

What does this mean for Long Island voters? Last week an ad appeared on local television skewering Congressman Tim Bishop in the harshest terms replete with ominous graphics. It ends by urging voters to choose “businessman Randy Altschuler” whose image is superimposed over sunny clip art of home construction. This distortion of the truth was levied against Congressman Bishop by the Alliance For America’s Future. Like many other Republican-linked 527 groups, this “Alliance” sounds like a group of hardworking, regular Americans who think that Tim Bishop is ruining our country. So I researched their website at http://www.allianceforamericasfuture.org and found that this organization is just a front for laundering corporate campaign donations. Average Americans can’t join this alliance; you can’t even make a donation. What you find through additional searches on the web is that The Alliance is headed by Mary Cheney, the former Vice President’s daughter. This group has purchased an initial ad buy of $90,000, but if their pattern in other states such as Florida and Nevada holds true, this is just the beginning.

Who might be donating the $90,000 to defeat Tim Bishop? One might speculate that since Congressman Bishop has supported U.S. companies developing alternative energy, his undisclosed enemies might be the same oil companies that made the Cheneys multimillionaires. Another possibility would be multinational companies that would benefit from American outsourcing who would see Randy Altschuler as their natural ally. A third possibility would be large insurance companies, who would love to resume gouging excessive profits by denying coverage if they could just repeal the new health care bill. The problem is we do not know who’s putting up the cash. We only know that the Alliance For America’s Future and other newly formed Republican 527 groups are secretly taking in millions of dollars in hidden, undisclosed donations and pouring them into aggressive, anti-Democratic media campaigns.

A few months ago, Democrats in the House tried to pass the DISCLOSE Act requiring that all of these 527 groups reveal their donor list and Republicans in Congress successfully blocked the legislation. So far in 2010, the vast amount of Democratic Party donors have been disclosed and are available online, while undocumented Republican donations to 527 groups (over $300 million according to the Wall Street Journal) have skyrocketed and outstrip undisclosed Democratic donations significantly. If this trend continues unchecked, average Americans will be completely priced out of the process and anonymous corporate messaging will dominate the political landscape. So much for “free” speech!

Jerry Silverstein is a retired teacher of media studies and a Calverton resident.