Use Knox V. SEIU to Attack Money in Politics, Pt. 3

512px-Day_2_Occupy_Wall_Street_Sign_2011_Shankbone.JPGBy Josh Sager



With the precedent set by the recent Supreme Court Decision Knox v. SEIU, I see the potential for a new line of attack on corporate interests donating money. Instead of simply attempting to attack the right of large aggregations of wealth and power (e.g., corporations and unions) to spend money in elections, citizens can use Knox v. SEIU to attack such donations through the argument that such groups are unconstitutionally compelling donations from the public.

Public sector unions are not the only groups which utilize government laws and regulations to compel citizens to pay for their activities: Corporations which receives government contracts (e.g., Lockheed Martin), corporations whose stock is purchased by public pension funds (e.g., blue-chip stocks), and military and privatized public good suppliers (e.g., private prison corporations), are simply three examples of situations where the public is compelled to invest in a corporation. A corporation which receives government money is receiving funds obtained through the mandated payment of taxes on the public; as there is no way to opt out of taxes or directly control the flow of tax revenue to prohibit the giving of tax money to specific corporations (e.g., saying that none of your taxes shall go to Exxon Mobil), the government is essentially forcing taxpayers to support specific corporations.

As with the government mandating workers in a union shop to pay the SEIU for their promotion of collective bargaining, it is entirely proper for the government to compel citizens to pay for the corporate contracts utilized by the government to provide for society; tax income has regularly been used to contract the provision of public services and goods to private corporations (e.g., military weapons contracts). The problem emerges when the same corporations which receive public funding, raised through mandated taxes, are spending money as “political speech.”

If a corporation which has received public money for a service chooses to engage in political speech (and, given the widespread use of lobbying combined with the propagation of corporate subsidies, this is essentially every large corporation) then the government is, in effect, mandating that the average taxpayer support said corporation’s political speech. Just as the SEIU attempted to use its funds to support its political “speech,” corporations utilize their profits to facilitate their own “speech.” Just as the SEIU benefits from the government’s “agency shop” rules forcing all workers to support them monetarily, many corporations benefit from the government giving them funding raised through taxes.  

Put plainly, if the SEIU cannot utilize money collected through government compulsion for its political “speech,” as this would violate the 1st Amendment, no corporation receiving money from the government – money collected through compulsory taxation - should be able to utilize its funds for political speech. If Knox v. SEIU is applied to corporate entities rather than just public unions, as is proper under current free-speech law, corporations could still spend money in politics, just as long as they are barred from receiving any and all public assistance.

The banning of private organizations from receiving public monies based upon taxpayers’ objections to such organizations being granted public funds is not unprecedented: The “Title X” ban on abortion providers being paid through public funds, even if their actions are constitutionally protected, was upheld during the 1991 case Rust v. Sullivan. If it is constitutional for abortion-providing corporations to be banned from receiving public subsidies (in the form of compulsory tax dollars), assisting them in performing their constitutionally protected services (abortions), then it is constitutional for the government to ban other corporations from receiving such funds to perform other constitutionally protected activities (e.g., political speech). This is not to say that such organizations cannot act with private money, but rather that they must perform their constitutionally protected activities – whether abortion or political speech - with private funds.

I propose a legal challenge to the United States Government, aimed specifically at expanding Knox v. SEIU to cover all corporate and union entities which receive public funds where there is no opt-out. Based upon current jurisprudence, this case would conform to the current law and would drastically reduce the amount of money in politics.

If a corporation is forced to choose between the revenue which comes from government contracts, public sector pension investments, subsidies, grants, and contracts, and their ability to freely exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech, it is likely that they will choose to relinquish their right to speak. By forcing large corporations to pick between their pocketbooks and their ability to influence politics, concerned citizens can force corporations to voluntarily disarm much of their political apparatuses.

As a favorable decision in this case would simply expand the constitutional interpretations of existing laws, there is no need to pass the partisan and gridlocked legislature.

Given its past decisions of Citizens United v. FEC and Knox v. SEIU, an intellectually consistent Supreme Court would be forced to side with the challengers’ interpretations of the law -- under current law, political speech restrictions do not distinguish between unions and corporations, thus what applies to unions receiving compulsory funding would necessarily apply to corporations receiving the same. As this legal case does not challenge a specific ideology within free speech, it does not violate the constitutional ban against the government favoring specific types of speech; in fact, a Supreme Court denial of this interpretation would represent a discrimination of speech favoring corporations over unions.


Anybody who is currently paying taxes or paying into a government pension program could potentially have standing to challenge the constitutionality of their money being used to fund corporations’ political speech. As corporate profits are not separated by source, a portion of every taxpayer’s taxes, while small, is being used by corporations to fund their political speech. Under the Knox v. SEIU precedent, the use of such money violates the 1st Amendment right to free speech for every individual to be forced to pay the corporation.


Even if the proposed case is successful, and a Supreme Court expands Knox v. SEIU to disarm corporations, this court case would not completely solve the problem of money in politics; a favorable decision would mitigate some of its effects, but not solve the problem at its source (similar to cutting a weed off at ground-level rather than pulling it up at its roots).

The following list is of several limitations and complications which would accompany the legal fight and results (if successful) of the proposed legal case:

  1. The current Supreme Court is a highly partisan body and could potentially throw away its own precedent to support the sustainability of corporate power in politics. While this action would be so obviously hypocritical, given their Knox v. SEIU decision, that they would lose face in the public eye, however it is entirely possible that they would act so anyway.
  2. Once corporate groups became aware of the effort to cripple their funding streams, the response would likely be enormous. If these corporate groups believed their funding to be significantly threatened by this case, they would likely attempt to crush it with all available resources.
  3. 501(c)(4) “Super-PACS” (e.g., Crossroads GPS) are considered “social welfare organizations” rather than political groups, thus these groups will still be able to spend limitless amounts of money in politics.
  4. Wealthy individuals (e.g., Sheldon Adelson) would be left completely untouched by this method of attacking money in politics. As individuals, not institutions, these rich people would be able to bypass the ban on publicly funded corporations and continue to spend limitless amounts of money as a form of political speech.
  5. The “revolving doors” of politics and regulatory agencies would still be operational, thus corrupt political agents would still be able to benefit from their corporate patronage; hopefully, by reducing the ability of corporations to support such politicians while seeking re-election, these politicians would be more vulnerable to unseating.
  6. As with all Supreme Court decisions, a future court can overrule this decision. Because of its lack of permanence, the use of the Supreme Court to challenge money in politics will always be inferior to the attempt grounded in pursuing a constitutional amendment.
  7. By intentionally expanding Knox v. SEIU to cover corporations, it is possible to reduce the money in politics from all groups, regardless of partisanship. Partisan actors are unlikely to get behind the effort to disarm their political apparatus’s funding stream, regardless of whether or not it also disarms their opponents.
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published this page in Blog 2012-07-18 12:56:55 -0400

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