The US Supreme Court, Free Speech, and Corporate Citizenship
Many of you are already aware of last week’s controversial decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. Basically, the decision struck down a part of the U.S. government’s law that limited the freedom of corporations (and unions) to engage in political speech.
But saying that you are free to do something is not the same as saying that you should do it or that there are no limits on the way you should do it. Ethics is, in part, about figuring out what limits we ought to accept on our own behaviour, beyond the limits imposed by law.
Here’s a very useful piece that looks at the Citizens United case from that point of view, by Wayne Norman (of Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics), writing in The News & Observer: With ‘citizenship’ comes great responsibility:
For the foreseeable future, “corporate citizens” have a right to speak their minds and to spend as much as it takes to get you to hear their message.
But should they? Is it ethical to actually exercise these rights – for example, to spend money to try to defeat a candidate who would tighten regulations on the firm or its industry?
It is time to shine more light on a realm of corporate responsibility that tends to get overlooked when we are focusing on more obvious irresponsible behaviors like pollution, sweatshops or excessive risk taking….
Wayne goes on to suggest a couple of likely obligations, including an obligation on the part of corporate citizens to use their free speech rights in ways conducive to the public good, and an obligation to be transparent about their lobbying.
But I think the key contribution, here, is the idea that the Court’s decision is not just a conclusion — it’s the starting point for a (renewed) conversation about what a corporation’s responsibilities are in how it exercises free speech in the realm of politics.