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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Off Target: Corporate Spending as "Speech" against Gay Rights

In a 5-4 decision on January 21, 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that federal restrictions on corporate spending in elections constituted a violation of free speech. Critics called it wrong to equate corporate “speech” with individual speech and said the ruling would allow special-interest money to flood election campaigns. The bipartisan nature of the opposition to this ruling is striking in these largely partisan times. The court’s ruling is opposed, respectively, by 76, 81 and 85 percent of Republicans, independents and Democrats; and by 73, 85 and 86 percent of conservatives, moderates and liberals. Majorities in all these groups, ranging from 58 to 73 percent, not only oppose the ruling but feel strongly about it. Even among people who agree at least somewhat with the Tea Party movement, which advocates less government regulation, 73 percent oppose the high court’s rejection of this particular law. In addition to overwhelming opposition to the decision, there’s also bipartisan support for Congress to try to reinstate restrictions on campaign spending by corporations and unions.

So when Target sent a check for $150,000 to MN Forward, a Minnesota-based political group backing a gubernatorial candidate with penchant for opposing gay rights, people wondered what business Target has in taking sides on that issue, even if the group was also pro-business. MN Forward endorsed and was paying for ads for the Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. On Emmer’s website he defines marriage as a “union between one man and one woman” and he has come under fire for his $250 contribution to a Christian rockband that has been known to speak harshly of gays. Emmer told the Minnesota Star Tribune that the controversial rock band “You Can Run But You Cannot Hide,” were “nice people,” following band member Bradlee Dean’s reported comments that Muslim countries that support execution of gays are “more moral than even the American Christians.” To be sure, the managers of Target were not spending their companies’ “free speech” in defense of such a view, but that the wealth qua free speech was nonetheless being spent on a candidate who had made such a comment makes the Target CEO an unwitting accomplice.
Rather than viewing Target managers distancing themselves from Emmer’s view of gays as corporate social responsibility, I contend that the problem lies in taking spending as speech. Put another way, Target would have better stores if it sticked to its knitting, as it were.

Diverting money even to political campaign groups that further a pro-business agenda is off from the business’s main business, which in the case of Target is to sell retail. Besides the collateral damage from unwittingly helping campaigns on issues that are not even pro-business, diverting cash reserves to political campaigns puts corporations in the business of electoral politics, which is another sort of retail. In the case of Target, it is not as though the stores could not be improved from a business standpoint.  Once I accompanied a foreign friend of mine to a Target to return the coat he had given his wife for Christmas. Because he had paid by check, he had only the option, according to the “customer service” employee, of exchanging it. He could not get his money back—though he could have had he paid cash or by credit card. The “reasoning” of Target’s managers was that a check is “like kind” to an exchange voucher.  My friend and I left the store committed not to return, and I have not. Even in terms of influencing electoral politics in a pro-business general direction, Target’s management has plenty else to do closer to home—if indeed it is a home.  Rather than being socially responsible, a company ought to focus on its knitting.  That—doing business well—is the responsible thing to do because it is what a business’s owners expect from the managers of their property. Rather than being able to influence electoral politics beyond their expertise, managers ought to be restrained more by stronger corporate governance. To be sure, managers have a tendency to over-reach. Treating their spending decisions as “speech” only enbles them.