According to the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." If this principle means anything, it is that government cannot stop you from speaking your mind, no matter who you are or what you believe.
It also means that the government cannot stop you from reading the newspapers you want to buy, listening to the speakers you want to hear, or watching the movies you want to see.
At no time is the freedom of speech more important than right before an election. Yet, two years ago, when a group of fellow Americans called Citizens United wanted to give Americans the chance to watch a controversial political documentary on pay-per-view television right before a primary election, the government banned them from doing so.
You read that right: Free speech. Banned. In America. Right before an election.
How could this be?
Unfortunately, until this year, the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act (BCRA) threatened any group of American citizens organized for legal purposes as a "corporation" or "labor union" with fines and jail time if they spent money to broadcast speech supporting or opposing a candidate for federal office up to two months before an election -- all, allegedly, in order to "protect" people's faith in honest government from "special interests" with big money.
On Jan. 21, however, the Supreme Court ended this paternalistic charade, ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that all Americans enjoy the same right to free speech, regardless of the kind of associations they form in order to exercise this right.
As the court held: "When Government seeks ... to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful."
Now, critics of this decision claim it will lead to nothing less than the end of democracy in America. But it should be hailed by all Americans as a vindication of free speech, the core value that makes democracy possible in the first place.
Consider two of the major claims made by critics of the decision and how effectively the Supreme Court itself addressed each of them.
The first claim is that corporations and labor unions are not people, so they have no free speech rights. To the contrary, corporations -- which are nothing more than groups of individuals -- derive their free speech rights from the people who compose them. Think about the self-employed electrician who incorporates his small business for tax and legal liability reasons. Should he lose the right to speak using his hard-earned wages merely because his business is a "corporation?"
Moreover, as the court observed, if government censorship of small, nonprofit groups like Citizens United can be justified merely because these groups enjoy "corporate" status, then what about the speech of large media "corporations" like the New York Times, or that of the local Rotary or Kiwanis club? After all, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the "media" enjoy no special constitutional protection, and the exemption that BCRA made for "media corporations" was a statutory one. What Congress giveth, so Congress can take away.
The second claim is that, under the Citizens United decision, corporations and labor unions are now free to buy elections and ruin democracy: If anything, the opposite is true.
Indeed, by ending the kind of discriminatory censorship permitted under BCRA, the Supreme Court has freed the voices of over 6 million American corporations and labor unions of all sizes, purposes and political orientations, making it that much harder for any one group of citizens to monopolize the marketplace of ideas, much less "buy" an election.
As the court concludes: "Factions should be checked by permitting them all to speak, and by entrusting the people to judge what is true and what is false." In other words, the First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.
Unfortunately, in concluding that the court erred by not allowing the government to ban corporations' speech, critics of the Citizens United decision have concluded that this freedom must give way to censorship. Thankfully, the framers -- and the court -- disagreed.
Mahesha Subbaraman is a second-year law student at the University of Minnesota and a law clerk at the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Citizens United. The institute describes itself as the nation's only libertarian public interest law firm.