Free speech is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment, but it was individuals, not corporations, James Madison had in mind when he crafted it.
The government watchdog group Public Citizen said the Supreme Court told "corporate giants that they have a constitutional right to trample our democracy."
President Obama, who will need a well-financed campaign chest to win reelection, called it a "green light to a new stampede of special interest money" that was a "major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and other powerful interests."
One spectator posted a sarcastic Tweet that simply said "Lehman for President!"
It is possible to reconcile a belief in free speech with the notion that it isn't necessarily defined as an absence of restriction. The court's opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission essentially says that an oil company has the same right to free speech as an individual protesting on the courthouse steps â€" a premise I don't remember reading in any amendment to the Constitution.
Justice John Paul Stevens didn't seem to remember it either, writing in his scathing 90-page dissent that, unlike today's justices, the Framers of the Constitution "had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind."
After today's ruling, corporations will be free to spend as much money as they like on advertisements that support or oppose candidates with minimal restriction. But granting corporations rights is a slippery slope. If there is a right to speech, is there a right to vote? What are we to do with corporations headed by foreigners? As Stevens points out, those corporations will now be able to influence U.S. elections as freely as those run by Americans.
Both political parties realize there is much to lose. One attorney who has worked on several GOP presidential campaigns told The Associated Press "[i]t's going to be a Wild Wild West." Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told The Washington Post "the Supreme Court has just predetermined the winners of next November's election."
In Stevens' words, today's decision was "a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding -- [i]t is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics."
As the money flows in during this election cycle, it will be hard to disagree.
For more background, check out BNET's briefing on the case: Do Corporations Have the Right to Free Political Speech?