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Jim Sleeper

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How the Supreme Court Aids Government-Controlled Speech

Posted: 03/25/2012 4:06 pm

This short, troubling PBS NewsHour segment on the Chinese-government's new American TV News network, CCTV, must be causing some sleepless afternoons at the Supreme Court for conservative justices who opened the door to this with the Citizens United ruling.

As I showed here at the time, Citizens United expanded 100 years of bad corporate jurisprudence that equates corporations with "persons" and money with speech. It asserted that the First Amendment protects "speech," even if the "speaker" is not a deliberating, flesh-and-blood person, and not even a spokesperson for a deliberative association of such persons, but a voice hired and controlled by corporate money, whose ends are narrowly predetermined and over-determined before democratic deliberation can begin.

The Court was quick to emphasize that corporations can include unions and other non-profit advocacy groups. But these have a lot less money, and freedom of speech means less still if those who do have a lot of it have megaphones, while the rest of us have laryngitis from straining to be heard. The Court majority didn't care about that, but perhaps it will now that China has pumped so much money into CCTV "news."

Of course, Citizens United was only about campaign-finance laws, not about anyone's right to set up a television network. But as long as our jurisprudence insists on considering business corporations legal "persons" -- and then, as it should, exempts news corporations ("the press") from any restrictions whatever -- we must let China do here what Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes do with Fox News, even though both offer propaganda, not real journalism, and even though China is a lot more controlling of what anyone (including Murdoch) broadcasts in China than we are of China's (or Murdoch's) broadcasting here.

Few of us who oppose the past century of corporate "personhood" jurisprudence (which Citizens United reaffirmed like the 13th chime of a broken clock) would accept government censorship. But we do wonder why conservatives (and some libertarian leftists) -- who brandish the First Amendment against "censorship" every time anyone tries to put reasonable restrictions on the political "speech" of stock-driven business corporations whose managers can't deliberate as flesh-and-blood citizens do -- are so accepting of the Chinese Communist government setting up and censoring a corporation that employs American reporters to give us what CCTV considers "news," all in idiomatic, folksy American English.

And some of us even wonder why any business corporation, Australian or even American, is allowed do the same.

How different, really, is CCTV's news from the American conglomerate news we get now? Some veterans of American conglomerate news networks who now work for China TV tell PBS they don't see much difference.

And, really, why would they? Asian state capitalism and American state capitalism are growing more alike every day. If even great American universities are joining a mad dash to offer "liberal education" to the authoritarian, bottom-line obsessed Asian nations on pretty much those regimes' own terms, shouldn't we all be equally comfortable when China, which censors its press (see the PBS story for an assessment of CCTV interviews), reports our "news"?

We shouldn't be comfortable at all. And we don't have to accept it if we want to protect real journalism and real liberal education -- which are so vital to a republic and a liberal public sphere -- from being conscripted subtly into doing the intellectual equivalent of "sex work" to facilitate corporate development and consolidations of state power.

Blame Chief Justifier John Roberts and his band of merry men for helping us to forget. Conservative justices who insist that they're honoring the founders' "original intent" to establish ordered (even sacred) liberty and impregnable American sovereignty are only outsmarting themselves every time they make "free market" decisions that empower the civic mindlessness of business corporations, thereby dissolving the American liberty and sovereignty the justices claim they want to conserve.