Former congressman connects humanities, Citizens United decision


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For Jim Leach, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the power of a few choice words is exemplified in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, furthering the need for students to take humanities courses.

“[The decision] is saying that more speech is more democracy, meaning more money is more democracy, which is why I have addressed this today from a linguistic perspective,” Leach said during a lecture this past weekend.

Leach — a former congressman for Iowa City’s Congressional District — gave the keynote lecture Oct. 13 at a meeting for the Central Division of the Community College Humanities Association in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber. Leach pushed the importance of linguistics and the humanities in understanding the effect words can have.

“Prior to Citizens United, the Supreme Court recognized that there is a distinction between issue advocacy with words and issue advocacy with words backed by money,” he said.

Citizens United was a U.S. Supreme Court decision made in 2010 that labeled corporations, in legal terms, as people. They are able to give unlimited amounts of money to campaigns of their choosing.

Leach outlined how the words chosen in the decision have made it possible for corporations to have a large influence, larger than the American public, in choices made in Washington, D.C., as well as the effect corporate giving has on citizens.

“I can attest that the tertiary effect of corporate giving is that it diminishes citizen respect for the political system, the desire to vote, and even the willingness to engage in the political process by giving small contributions,” Leach said.

David Berry, the executive director of the Community College Humanities Association, agreed with Leach and believes students on all campuses should be informed.

“A Supreme Court decision like that is complex and probably for many students remote — it’s not something they normally think about,” Berry said. “But I think they should think about it.”

University of Iowa political-science Associate Professor Tim Hagle said the idea of a corporation being legally equal to a person, and so able to give money, is not a new idea.

“A lot of those concerns over Citizens United, whether you’re unhappy or not, tend to coincide with a person’s political party,” he said.

Derek Benesh, a full-time instructor at Kirkwood Community College, stressed the relevance to college students.

Kirkwood hosted the Community College Humanities Association this year.

“The decision affects all of us, and maybe college students especially, because it equates money with speech, and the result is that lobbies and corporations have — absolutely, right now — so much influence on politicians that the voices of others are drown out or ignored,” Benesh wrote in an email after attending the lecture.

Officials say humanities play a large role in teaching students how to think critically about the Citizens United decision and similar decisions.

“It’s humanities that give us insight and the tools needed to analyze and to make decisions in order to live a life worth living,” Berry said. “For students who realize how politics and the decisions made in the political realm affects their lives, I think they’ll realize the importance of what he was saying.”
Benesh agreed that the humanities play a large role in understanding.

“It is important for all of us, students or otherwise, to continually seek out and understand diverse perspectives on pressing issues,” he said.  “Study in the humanities expands our worldview, our ability to appreciate and navigate complexity, and our ability to see that issues which seem superficial and arbitrary actually have depth.”

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