Court ruling advances free speech
February 1, 2010
Freedom New Mexico
The First Amendment is healthier following a Supreme Court decision Thursday that strengthens its roots: protecting political speech.
The court ruled 5-4 in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that the federal government cannot restrict how corporations and labor unions may spend money to advocate for or against candidates for political office. The decision overturns two legal precedents and deals yet another blow to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law passed in 2002. However, corporations and unions still are prohibited from contributing directly to candidates.
During the 2008 election, the incorporated nonprofit group Citizens United wanted to make the film “Hillary: The Movie,” which was critical of then-candidate Hillary Clinton, available in theaters and on pay-per-view television right before a primary election. But this was illegal under both McCain-Feingold (which prohibits political advocacy less than 30 days before primaries) and previous Supreme Court rulings that permitted the government to ban corporations and unions from promoting or opposing political candidates.
The court Thursday rejected those restrictions. As Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said, “if the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits jailing citizens for engaging in political speech.”
In a 90-page dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens was dismissive of complaints that Citizens United suffered from a loss of liberty. “The real issue in this case concerns how, not if, the appellant may finance its electioneering,” he wrote. “Citizens United … could have spent unrestricted sums to broadcast ‘Hillary’ at any time other than the 30 days before the last primary election” (emphasis added).
That “other than” misses the point. The time limit is a significant government restriction on how speech may be exercised. That clearly runs afoul of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Political speech is not free if the government can dictate when and where you exercise it.
Furthermore, in response to those who question why corporations might be recognized as having the same free speech rights as individuals, Justice Antonin Scalia in a concurring opinion argued: “The (First) Amendment is written in terms of ‘speech,’ not speakers. Its text offers no foothold for excluding any category of speaker, from single individuals to partnerships of individuals, to unincorporated associations of individuals, to incorporated associations of individuals …”
The advocacy group Public Citizen responded to the court’s ruling by calling for a constitutional amendment specifying that for-profit corporations are not entitled to First Amendment protections. At least they’re seeking to effect change the proper way, as opposed to several members of Congress who vowed Thursday to continue pursuing a legislative route. In other words, they will mount another attempt to circumvent the Constitution, even though the Citizens United opinion appears to offer little if any wiggle room.
Want to get money out of politics? Then limit government power, not our freedoms to oppose it.