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Censorship Versus Liberty

Controversial decision protects free speech, says Konvitz lecturer

Many Americans disdain the U.S. Supreme Court's OK on corporations and unions spending unlimited dollars to influence elections.

Floyd Abrams A&S '56 is not among them.  

The 2010 court opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was correct, even if some of the rhetoric it protects is groundless, he said at the Milton Konvitz Memorial Lecture on Monday.

" … Even political speech we think is excessively hyperbolic, overstated or even irresponsible" is never without value, Abrams said in the lecture, entitled "The Citizens United Case: Dissenting from the Dissenters."

Some feared Citizens United would prompt corporations to spend billions influencing elections, but that hasn’t happened, Abrams told 150 people gathered in Ives Hall. "… The much predicted corporate tsunami simply did not occur."

"To me, it is simply unthinkable – or should be – to say that … speech about who to vote for to be president should be so limited, let alone made criminal. And that is true whether the speech is positive or negative."

"Since when did criticism receive less protection than praise? Indeed, criticism of government and of those who seek high government positions is at the heart of what the First Amendment protects most vigilantly."

"When James Madison wrote that in this nation, the ‘censorial power lies in the people over the Government and not the Government over the people,’ that is what he was talking about," he said.

"There are always reasons to engage in censorship. But, there are never reasons that are consistent with the notion of liberty," said Abrams, one of the nation’s most influential constitutional lawyers.

Laws limiting speech are not the answer to giving the non-wealthy a voice in national elections, he said.

A more progressive tax code or enforcement of antitrust laws would be more helpful, said Abrams, who said that Konvitz continues – through his writing – to promote the concept of free speech. Konvitz was one of ILR's founding faculty members.

Abrams quoted Konvitz: "(T)he invaluable and the valueless, the noble and the tawdry, the true and the false, the good and the evil, are equally protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendment's guarantees of a free press and religious freedom."

The annual Konvitz lecture was founded in 2006 by Cornell graduates Irwin and Joan Jacobs. The California couple attended Monday’s lecture.