You might have noticed that Popehat blacked out yesterday to join the protest against SOPA/PIPA. (The technical aspect of that effort was all David's work; if I had tried it . . . well, suffice it to say all these posts might have been lost, like tears in rain, etc.) The widespread protest seemed to succeed at its aim of raising awareness and led to defections from the ranks of SOPA/PIPA supporters.
All of that seemingly effective advocacy raises a question: did its participants have a First Amendment right to protest that way?
For folks like us at Popehat — mere individuals, not corporations or partnerships (we're more like an unincorporated mystical brotherhood) — the answer is rather clearly yes. Few would dispute it.
But for entities like Google, or Mozilla, or the Wikimedia Foundation, the answer is apparently unsettled in the minds of some of you.
Some of the criticism began with the Citizens United case, which held that the McCain–Feingold Act violated the First Amendment to the extent it purported to prohibit a non-profit corporation from producing and airing a film attacking Hillary Clinton. Elements of the Occupy Wall Street campaign took up the cry, asserting that corporations are not people and only people, not corporations, have constitutional rights.
These sentiments seemed largely absent yesterday when various business entities — from non-profits like Wikimedia Foundation to for-profits like Google — expressed themselves in opposition to SOPA/PIPA.
So, to critics of Citizens United, I have a question: should those business entities have had a right to engage in SOPA/PIPA protests like they did? If so, what is the source of that right, and by what mechanism is it vindicated?
After all, not everyone was happy with the corporate participation in the protest. As I discussed on Tuesday, the MPAA broadly hinted that such expression is permitted only at the sufferance of government and its favored lobbyists:
It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today. It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests.
Note how the MPAA cloaks itself in populist anti-corporate rhetoric, hoping you are too intractably stupid to grasp that the MPAA is the ultimate corporate lobbyist asking Congress to pass sweeping legislation favoring it over the rights of citizens and other corporations. Note also the MPAA's use of the core idea underlying opposition to Citizens United: incitement, the concept that corporate speech is illegitimate and dangerous because it leads citizens into false consciousness so that they vote and act in ways we don't like.
But the MPAA is just an industry mouthpiece. Surely the media — which prizes freedom of expression above all else — will reject this narrative, right? Wrong — or, at least, wrong in some cases, as with the sad rag-peddlers at the Boston Herald:
Within hours of the online protest, political supporters of the bill — including the usually sensible Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — began dropping like flies, thus proving how very powerful these cyber-bullies can be.
"Cyber-bullying" is, of course, one of those Humpty-Dumpty categorical terms that we use when we disagree with speech but can't articulate a principled basis for saying it lies outside the protection of the First Amendment.
So: many were happy with the SOPA/PIPA protests, but some weren't. Some of the unhappy people are powerful — like the MPAA and its gang of censorship apologists.
If you think that Citizens United was wrong — if you think that corporations shouldn't have First Amendment rights — then why, exactly, can't the government punish Wikimedia Foundation or Google or any other non-human entity for speech that offended its favored lobbyist and contributor, the MPAA?
(Note that I'm addressing people who say corporations have no First Amendment rights, not people who say campaign donation restrictions do not violate the First Amendment because money is not speech, which is an entirely different ranty post.)
1. If corporations have no First Amendment rights, why can't federal or state or local governments single out, say, Wikimedia Foundation for its SOPA/PIPA blackout? Why can't they penalize or fine or even dissolve it? Why can't they single Wikimedia Foundation out for disproportionate enforcement of unrelated laws in retaliation for disfavored speech?
2. If your answer is "the political process — the voice of the people — will stop them from suppressing expression in this way," what is the historical basis in America for the assertion that the political process, standing alone, without judicial review based upon application of constitutional rights, is sufficient to stop governmental overreach? How's that working out for, say, the rights implicated by the War on Drugs, or the post-9/11 Security State? How well does the political process work to protect freedom of expression from government efforts to, say, ban mean pictures on the internet? The political process will protect corporations from governmental retaliation against disfavored expression? Are you shitting me?
3. If courts adopt your view — if the Supreme Court says "corporations have no First Amendment rights" — is it really your view that government restrictions on corporate speech will be imposed in a neutral and even-handed manner? Really? You think that corporate influence will be so driven from politics that, for instance, the MPAA and RIAA won't be able to induce the government to retaliate against the Wikimedia Foundations and Googles of the world? Again, on what historical precedent — on what logic — do you premise that belief?
4. You say that people, not corporations, have First Amendment rights. Fine. Tell me: as a person, how do you plan to exercise your freedom of speech if corporate venues for doing so may be restricted by the government? SOPA/PIPA is actually an excellent example of this. SOPA/PIPA did not merely attack accused pirates directly — it used ISPs as its minions. SOPA/PIPA threaten ISPs and major web sites — corporations — with dramatic consequences if they so much as link to sites that the government (or its preferred lobbyists) disfavor. So. If the government is allowed to use this method, what, exactly, protects us when the government decides to bully corporations into making us vanish from the internet? If the government says "you writers at Popehat have First Amendment rights; we can't punish you. But you, Google, you have no First Amendment rights; you have no right to list Popehat in search results. You, ISP, you have no First Amendment rights, you have no right to host sites like Popehat. You, Major Publisher, you have no First Amendment rights, you have no right to publish Popehat's exciting upcoming book, In Which Snark Substitutes For Grammar And Serious Analysis: The Taint-Snorting.
For that last, you might say, "they can't do that, because you have First Amendment rights, and those corporations are just the vehicles through which you are exercising those rights." To which I say: exactly. That's what entities are — vehicles through which people do things. Sometimes they are objectionable things, sometimes they are stupid things, soometimes they are things that, if accepted, would lead to deplorable results. But entities — corporations — are vehicles for human activity, including expression.
So. Advocates of the "corporations have no First Amendment rights" position: why can't the government punish the corporations that blacked out yesterday?