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Blaming Citizens United Is an ‘Oversimplification,’ Tribe Says

Lawrence H. Tribe, professor at the Law School, speaks on Citizens United and the role of money in politics on Monday.
Lawrence H. Tribe, professor at the Law School, speaks on Citizens United and the role of money in politics on Monday. By Melanie Y. Fu
By Mahnoor B. Ali and Alec J. Grigorian, Contributing Writers

Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62 argued Monday that holding the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 2010 case Citizens United v. FEC primarily responsible for campaign finance issues is “a dangerous oversimplification.”

In a large Law School classroom where attendees outnumbered seats, a discussion dubbed “If Citizens United Isn’t the Problem, What’s the Solution?” centered on the 2010 ruling that the government could not restrict independent political expenditures by nonprofit corporations.

“The American people are disgusted by the current state of campaign finance,” Tribe said, but he argued that focusing the narrative of American political ills on Citizens United would increase political cynicism and alienation without addressing real issues.

“First of all, Citizens United is not the indefensible position its critics claim,” he said. “Second, the way we fund campaigns in this country is actually less central to our political problems than it is made out to be.”

Two slogans associated with the anti-Citizens United movement, “Money isn’t speech” and “Corporations aren’t people,” are well-intended but naive, Tribe said.

Tribe said he considers Buckley v. Valeo, rather than Citizens United, the landmark legal case related to campaign finance. In its ruling in 1976, the Supreme Court held that while the government could restrict individual contributions to political campaigns and candidates, it could not limit independent expenditures in campaigns, expenditures by candidates from their own personal or family resources, and total campaign expenditures.

Tribe argued Monday that the Citizens United ruling “expand[ed] that logic to corporations.”

As an alternative to focusing on Citizens United, Tribe suggested that critics direct their efforts towards vs Federal Election Commission. In that case, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held that because the Supreme Court does not consider combating corruption a legitimate reason to limit independent expenditures in campaigns, the government similarly could not restrict contributions to groups that made independent expenditures.

Tribe said this case would be easier to challenge because it fell under the purview of a circuit court and represented an extension of the Citizens United ruling.

Attendees had differing reactions to Tribe’s arguments. Some agreed with his expansion of the campaign finance reform discussion to more than Citizens United, and others still stressed its primary significance.

“I just think that Professor Tribe is a bit optimistic in his outlook in the sense that the whole system of campaign finance is basically a quid pro quo between the super PACs and the politicians,” Law School student Zeeshaan Z. Hashmi said.

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