Favoring the Press
n the 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the United States Supreme Court caught the nation’s attention by declaring that corporations have a First Amendment right to independently spend unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns. The Court rested its 5-4 decision in large part on a concept of speaker-based discrimination. In the Court’s words, “the Government may commit a constitutional wrong when by law it identifies certain preferred speakers.”
To drive home its point that speaker-based distinctions are inherently problematic, the Court focused on one type of speaker distinction—the treatment of news media corporations. The Court assumed that there is no constitutional difference between media corporations and other corporations and that if the government were able to limit the speech of some corporations, then it would also be free to censor the speech of media corporations. This was a thought that the majority called “dangerous, and unacceptable” and that Justice Antonin Scalia said “boggles the mind.” To the Citizens United majority, the news media corporation example settled the question on corporate speech rights, because any other rule would be unconstitutional speaker-based discrimination and open the doors for regulation of the news media.
But was the Citizens United Court correct about the media corporation dilemma? Is the government no more able to regulate the expressive activities of Exxon Mobil Corp. than it is of the New York Times Company? Must all speakers be treated uniformly whether or not they are members of the press? And does the Press Clause (and not just the Speech Clause) play a role in this analysis?
In this article, I push back on the claim that the Press Clause prohibits speaker-based classifications by the government. Rather than ban such distinctions, the Press Clause traditionally has worked in support of differential treatment for the press. History, court precedent and legislative practice, moreover, demonstrate how favoritism for press speakers has been condoned and often encouraged.
This debate over the meaning of the Press Clause could have significant ramifications. A jurisprudential drift of press rights away from a protection of core press functions and toward a constraint on the ability of the government to recognize the differing roles of press speakers could significantly threaten the vital structural safeguards of the fourth estate.