Lieu Backs Google's First Amendment Rights Despite Previously Blasting Citizens United

Democratic congressman has supported amending the Constitution to restrict corporate speech

December 11, 2018

Rep. Ted Lieu (D., Calif.) on Tuesday backed corporations' right to political speech, even though he has a long record of opposing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FCC decision, which articulated that right.

Citizens United asserted corporations have free speech rights and therefore can spend their money on political messages, which Lieu and many other Democrats have roundly criticized. Lieu has backed a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and called the Court’s decision "disastrous," but Tuesday he mocked Republicans for questioning Google CEO Sundar Pichai over Google’s potential political bias.

"This is now the fourth hearing in a series of ridiculous hearings on the free speech of internet companies," said Lieu, who has also criticized Republicans for other hearings about political messages online. "A significant portion of this hearing was a waste of time because the First Amendment protects private individuals’ and corporations’ free speech rights."

"The First Amendment limits what the government can do in regulating the content of speech, it does not limit Google, but Google does have to follow corporate laws and other laws, and under those laws you and your board of directors have a fiduciary duty to your shareholders," Lieu told Pichai.

"If consumers were not getting the search results they wanted, were not getting the videos they wanted to see, they might start moving to their competitors, isn’t that right?" Lieu asked, to an affirmative answer from Pichai.

Lieu explained his point in terms of dog and cat videos, but his ultimate argument is that Google is allowed to promote certain views over others if that gives users what they want. Google’s purpose in the free market, Lieu asserted, was to follow applicable laws while gaining users and making money for shareholders, and therefore arguments about fairness are irrelevant.

Lieu’s point—that Google is allowed to have its own viewpoint as expressed in search results—seems to undermine Pichai’s main point in the hearing, which is that Google has no bias. Lieu went on to say later in the hearing that he believes Google doesn’t intentionally manipulate search results for political reasons.

Backers of the constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, including Lieu, have argued "corporations are not people." The argument is a common talking point asserting that free speech rights do not apply to corporations the way they do to individuals. Notably, the Supreme Court also ruled the First Amendment applies to nonprofits and unions.

Lieu defended his point on Twitter from a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, who questioned the logic of corporate free speech. In his answer, Lieu said he would "like to regulate Fox News" but "can't because the First Amendment stops me."

By press time, Lieu's office had not responded to a question about whether he had changed his view on the Citizens United ruling.