Readers of Make No Law may recall that the Institute for Justice recently filed a brief in Bluman v. FEC, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear that case, a challenge to the federal prohibition on political spending by noncitizens. Now election-law scholar Rick Hasen has posted a commentary at The New Republic, provocatively titled “Will Foreigners Decide the 2012 Election? The Extreme Unintended Consequences of Citizens United.” In it, Hasen argues that the U.S. Supreme Court should reject this challenge or uphold the law. But Hasen’s argument is thin on both the facts and the law, and ultimately fails to make a compelling case for the Supreme Court to break new ground by holding, for the first time ever, that government may censor the speech of noncitizens lawfully residing within the United States.
As a threshold matter, Hasen’s argument is notably silent on the actual facts of the case, probably because they aren’t nearly as salacious as his portrait of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spending money in American elections. The plaintiffs are a Canadian lawyer and a Canadian-Israeli doctor, both of whom lawfully live and work in the United States. They want to make modest, limited contributions to political candidates and parties and to make modest expenditures on their own political speech (one actually wants to distribute fliers in Central Park urging the reelection of President Obama, which is currently illegal). Hasen makes no attempt to justify the law as it applies to these entirely harmless activities by people who live, work, and pay taxes in the United States.
In addition to omitting any facts about the plaintiffs, Hasen’s argument also ignores the fact that foreigners routinely speak out in American politics, to no ill effect. Foreigners, and even foreign governments, are permitted to spend unlimited amounts lobbying Congress. Foreign publications like The Economist routinely endorse American presidential candidates, and the UK paper The Guardian actually urged British citizens to send money to groups whose political efforts would indirectly benefit Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Foreigners are also permitted to make unlimited donations of volunteer services, no matter how valuable, as when Elton John volunteered as a performer at an event that raised $2.5 million for then-Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Hasen makes no attempt to square his predictions of “distressing” consequences if foreigners living within the United States are allowed to make political contributions or expenditures with the fact that none of those consequences have followed from the significant amounts of foreign speech that are already permitted.
Hasen’s silence on these points is not surprising, because there is not a single legal precedent—not one—that has ever held that foreigners lawfully living within the United States do not enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment. The only case Hasen cites to support his position is the Supreme Court’s ruling in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., in which the Supreme Court, per Justice Kennedy, held that an elected judge was required to recuse himself from hearing a case in which one of the litigants had made large independent expenditures to support his election. That case had nothing to do with foreign speakers, but Hasen claims that it runs directly contrary to the teaching of Citizens United that government is prohibited from limiting independent political speech.
The problem with Hasen’s legal argument is that Caperton did not involve any limitation on political speech. There was never any question as to whether government could limit independent spending in support of electing a judge; the only question was whether the judge could then hear a case involving that spender. Moreover, the claim that this narrow due-process decision has anything to do with elections outside the judicial context ignores the fact that judges and legislators play entirely different roles in our system of government. Judges are elected to serve as neutral magistrates, not as representatives of the people, and due process requires that they be impartial. Legislators, by contrast are expected to be partial. Simply put, there is no contradiction between the two decisions, which is hardly surprising as Justice Kennedy wrote both of them less than a year apart.
Fundamentally, however, our disagreement with Hasen isn’t about the law. Indeed, the legal precedent is so overwhelmingly in favor of permitting the Bluman plaintiffs to speak that the Supreme Court would have to break entirely new ground to find cause to restrict them. At its core, our disagreement with Hasen is about competing visions of voters and government. Hasen is apparently deeply concerned that voters, if exposed to too much of the wrong type of political speech, will make foolish choices at the polls, and believes that government should be permitted to censor speech to prevent that. We believe that this risk was contemplated by the Framers of the First Amendment, who wisely recognized that no government could be trusted with the power to decide which speakers or what speech a voter could consider before casting his ballot.
No matter what the Supreme Court decides in Bluman v. FEC, the answer to Prof. Hasen’s question—will foreigners decide the 2012 election?—is “no.” American voters will decide the 2012 election, just as they decide every election. The real question is: Will the federal government be permitted to continue prohibiting American voters from considering foreigners’ speech before casting their ballots?