Tom Piatak’s contrarian view of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision (“Obama Versus the Supreme Court,” Vital Signs, May) is convincing and well stated.  It is useful, however, to realize why conservative headline readers, those who probably did not peruse the actual decision or Justice Stevens’ dissent, are likely to think it a good ruling.  A 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation whose raison d’etre is political speech finds itself denied, during the critical 30 days before a Democratic presidential primary election, the ability to advertise and distribute a film criticizing a major candidate.  That’s an injustice, and, on its face, it seems a violation of the First Amendment.

But what started out as a limited First Amendment case turned into something far more sweeping.  A majority of the Supreme Court—the four conservatives and swing voter Justice Kennedy—transformed the case into an opportunity to declare virtually unlimited freedom for corporations to spend money on any political issue.

Corporate personhood is the term for treating corporations like natural persons.  Freedom of speech, which in the First Amendment is manifestly designated for individuals only (excepting one kind of business, the press) was long ago extended by the Supreme Court, with qualifications, to businesses in general.  The justifications usually included an observation that businesses are owned by, run by, and employ natural persons who enjoy First Amendment rights.

But if such reasoning is a non sequitur, it is particularly difficult to understand why corporations today deserve the privileges of citizens.  Unlike the earliest corporations (e.g., the East India Company), which were chartered by their country to do some of its financially risky and often dangerous work and whose shareholders had to put the good of their country ahead of personal wealth and corporate profit, today’s corporations exist solely to create wealth for their upper echelons and shareholders.

Very large corporations—think Fortune 500—also have astonishing powers and advantages over citizens: not just potential immortality and limited liability but vast wealth exceeding that of all but a tiny number of men; multinational identity; and no built-in moral constraints, just those dictated by law or public opinion.  Do corporations also merit freedom of speech, or the unregulated ability to spend money influencing political decisions (which is in the Supreme Court’s view a version of speech)?

Complexities enter the picture when one considers American nonprofits that organize themselves as corporations—Citizens United, for example—and small, closely held businesses.  One can make a reasonable case for exempting them from speech regulation.  Justice Stevens endorsed gradualism over revolution.  He noted in his long dissent that the Court’s majority could have decided Citizens United narrowly to reverse an injustice against like organizations but chose instead to make a sweeping and dramatic rearrangement of the political power relationship between businesses and individual citizens.

As Mr. Piatak says, “It is hard to see how genuine conservatives benefit from removing limits on corporate political expenditures.”  I agree but would add that liberals, with their characteristic suspicion of business and its motives, are unlikely to see a benefit, either.  Like the 2005 Kelo ruling, which dramatically expanded local government powers of eminent domain, the Citizens United decision should disturb thoughtful people.

—G.L. Gould

Ithaca, NY.