Justice Samuel Alito defended the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission on Thursday night, jabbing at critics of the U.S. Supreme Court's majority opinion but also admitting the success of their public relations campaign.
Alito said arguments can be made for overturning Citizens United, but not the popular one that boils down to one line: Corporations shouldn't get free speech rights like a person.
“It is pithy, it fits on a bumper sticker, and in fact a variety of bumper stickers are available,” Alito told a crowd of about 1,400 at The Federalist Society’s annual dinner. He cited two: “End Corporate Personhood,” and “Life does not begin at incorporation.”
Then Alito pointed out the same people do not question the First Amendment rights of media corporations in cases like The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, or the Pentagon papers case. If corporations did not have free speech rights, newspapers would lose such cases, he said.
Alito aded that nobody questioned whether First Amendment rights extended to the corporation that broadcast the awards speech during which Nicole Richie swore on air, an episode immortalized in Fox v Federal Communications Commission.
Alito censored himself when repeating Richie’s quote to the conservative crowd: “Have you ever tried to get cow bleep out of a Prada purse, it’s not so bleeping simple.”
Alito said the real issue is whether free speech rights “should be limited to certain preferred corporations, namely those media organizations.” And with the proliferation of the Internet and social media, the line is getting more blurry between individuals and media, he said.
The crowd heard a few zingers from Alito about how he learned constitutional law. Alito said Yale assigned him to the class of Charles Reich, a professor who had written several popular books about the decline of society. Reich thought “redemption could be found in the college hippie,” Alito said.
Reich started asking each student why they wanted to become a lawyer, and then engaged them in an extended debate. “This went on for weeks,” Alito said. The point he was trying to get across was that “there are no livable lives to be lived in the law.”
Reich also spent class time telling the students about a law firm at which one partner died during a tirade against an associate and another committed suicide by jumping down the elevator shaft.
One day, someone brought wine into class. “He began to chant, ‘Who put the acid in the wine, who put the acid in the wine,’ and that was the end of the class for the day,” Alito said. Soon, there was a note on the class door: “I have found it necessary to go to San Francisco, the rest of the classes are cancelled.”
“That was the end of my instruction in constitutional law,” Alito said, to applause from the audience. “I was forced to teach myself.”
Alito quipped that there were several books about constitutional law to buy and read, “but a beginner might start out by actually reading the text of the constitution.”
“It is hard not to notice that Congress’ powers are limited,” Alito said. “And you will see there is an amendment that comes right after the First Amendment, and there’s another that comes after the Ninth Amendment. Those are just a couple of examples.”