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About SOPA, Law Prof Asks: Is Corporate Political Speech Suddenly Okay With You?

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, January 18 2012

UCLA Law School professor Eugene Volokh challenges the idea that people who like today's "blackout" protests by Internet companies can also dislike the now-lowered limits on corporate speech thanks to the Citizens United decision:

Today, Google’s U.S. query page features an anti-Stop-Online-Piracy-Act statement from Google. Say that Congress concludes that it’s unfair for Google to be able to speak so broadly, in a way that ordinary Americans (including ordinary Congressmen) generally can’t. Congress therefore enacts a statute banning all corporations from spending their money — and therefore banning them from speaking — in support of or opposition to any statute. What would you say about such a statute? Again, I limit the question to those who think corporations generally lack First Amendment rights.

This lumps together people with two different assumptions: On the one hand, people who believe that corporations are not people, and thus do not have First Amendment rights; and on the other, people who disagree with the premise that "money is speech" is an acceptable reason for corporations — and wealthy individuals — to give, with limited disclosure, unlimited amounts of money in support or opposition to political campaigns. It also supposes that spending money on legislative advocacy and spending money in support or opposition to a candidate should be considered so similar as to be one and the same.

But Volokh also makes the point that what is happening today is a pretty new type of advocacy. Sure, TV stations and satellite or cable networks have interjected ad spots or scrolling lower thirds on their networks before — but those generally come as the result of some feud between corporations a few seconds at a time. Per the Wall Street Journal, ComScore estimates 10 million people will feel the effects of the Wikipedia blackout today. Everyone who visits Google Search's homepage, everyone who tries to go to Reddit during the 12-hour period from 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. EST, everyone who visits any of a number of other high-volume sites will also get the message. In terms of scale and scope for a single political message, this is, at the least, very rare. Are the rules different in a case like this? And should they be?