Earlier this week the Huffington Post reported on a recent press conference in Washington, D.C., about efforts to amend the First Amendment to overturn Citizens United v. FEC. The headline read “Citizens United Amendment Urged By Grassroots, Federal Lawmakers.” In the story, U.S. Senator Tom Udall says, “We have developing here a grassroots movement.”
Who, exactly, are the “grassroots” to which they refer? According to the story, 14 people spoke at the press conference. Of the 14, 13 were elected officials; one was a private citizen.
In other words, approximately 93 percent of the people calling to overturn the decision were people currently in power—the very people who stand to benefit most from shutting down the independent political voices that Citizens United helped free. This was not the grassroots; at best, it was a grassroot (note the singular noun).
The make-up of the press conference tells us everything we know about the push to reverse Citizens United. Many elected officials—like those at this press conference—do not like other people’s free speech and they especially do not like it when critical speech is directed at them. If they succeed in amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United, these same officials could pass laws that would make it impossible for people to amass enough resources to challenge their actions, thus effectively immunizing themselves from criticism.
This “grassroot” press conference demonstrates that the debate over Citizens United is not about “corporate personhood,” “fighting oligarchy” or “defending democracy.” It is about the desire of those in power to ensure that they remain free from criticism and political challenge. That is a particularly poor justification to start editing freedoms out of the First Amendment.