A Free Speech Landmark. WSJ Editorial
Campaign-finance reform meets the Constitution.
The Wall Street Journal, page A18, Jan 22, 2010
Freedom has had its best week in many years. On Tuesday, Massachusetts put a Senate check on a reckless Congress, and yesterday the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision [see slip op.] supporting free political speech by overturning some of Congress's more intrusive limits on election spending.
In a season of marauding government, the Constitution rides to the rescue one more time.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote yesterday's 5-4 majority opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which considered whether the government could ban a 90-minute documentary called "Hillary: the Movie" that was set to run on cable channels during the 2008 Presidential campaign. Because it was funded by an incorporated group and was less than complimentary of then-Senator Hillary Clinton, the film became a target of campaign-finance limits.
The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Act, aka McCain-Feingold, banned corporations and unions from "electioneering communications" within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. Yesterday, the Justices rejected that limit on corporate spending as unconstitutional. Corporations are entitled to the same right that individuals have to spend money on political speech for or against a candidate.
Justice Kennedy emphasized that laws designed to control money in politics often bleed into censorship, and that this violates core First Amendment principles. "Because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy—it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people—political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it by design or inadvertence," he wrote. The ban on corporate expenditures had a "substantial, nationwide chilling effect" on political speech, he added.
In last year's oral argument for Citizen's United, the Court got a preview of how far a ban on corporate-funded speech could reach. Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart explained that, under McCain-Feingold, the government had the authority to "prohibit the publication" of corporate-funded books that called for the election or defeat of a candidate.
That was a shock and awe moment at the Court, as it also should have been to a Washington press corps that has too often been a cheerleader for campaign-spending limits. Mr. Stewart was telling a truth already familiar to campaign-finance lawyers and the speech police at the Federal Election Commission. Former FEC Commissioner Hans von Spakovsky recalled yesterday that in 2004 the agency investigated whether a book written by George Soros critical of George W. Bush violated campaign laws. Liberals as much as conservatives should worry about laws that allow such investigations.
The Court's opinion is especially effective in dismantling McCain-Feingold's arbitrary exemption for media corporations. Thus a corporation that owns a newspaper—News Corp. or the New York Times—retains its First Amendment right to speak freely. "At the same time, some other corporation, with an identical business interest but no media outlet in its ownership structure, would be forbidden to speak or inform the public about the same issue," wrote Justice Kennedy. "This differential treatment cannot be squared with the First Amendment."
For instruction and sheer entertainment, we also recommend Justice Antonin Scalia's concurring opinion that demolishes Justice John Paul Stevens's argument in dissent that corporations lack free speech rights because the Founding Fathers disliked them. "If so, how came there to be so many of them?" Mr. Scalia writes, in one of his gentler lines.
The landmark decision—which overturned two Supreme Court precedents—has already sent the censoring political class into orbit. President Obama was especially un-Presidential yesterday, putting on his new populist facade to call it "a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies" and other "special interests." Mr. Obama didn't mention his union friends as one of those interests, but their political spending will also be protected by the logic of this ruling. The reality is that free speech is no one's special interest.
New York Senator Chuck Schumer vowed to hold hearings, and the Naderite Public Citizen lobby is already calling for a constitutional amendment that bans free speech for "for-profit corporations." Liberalism's bullying tendencies are never more on display than when its denizens are at war with the speech rights of its opponents.
Perhaps one day the Court will go even further and overturn Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 decision that was its original sin in tolerating limits on campaign spending. The Court did yesterday uphold disclosure rules, so a sensible step now would be for Congress to remove all campaign-finance limits subject only to immediate disclosure on the Internet. Citizens United is in any event a bracing declaration that Congress's long and misbegotten campaign-finance crusade has reached a Constitutional dead end.