Speech Ban Banned: High Court Nixes McCain-Feingold Limits on Political Speech

by Kurt Schulzke on January 21, 2010

In a huge victory for 1st Amendment rights, one day after Vietnamese communists sentenced five political dissidents to 16 years in prison, the United States Supreme Court has overturned a decades-old U.S.-government ban on political speech by corporations.

Reading the majority opinion, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, by Justice Kennedy, and the concurrence by Chief Justice Roberts, one is struck by the realization that a majority of the United States Senate actually voted in favor of this astonishing piece of censorship, in 2002. Not so surprisingly, the four “liberal-wing” members of the High Court voted to uphold it even today.

J. Kennedy writes for the majority:

The law before us is an outright ban, backed by criminal sanctions. Section 441b makes it a felony for all corporations—including nonprofit advocacy corporations—either to expressly advocate the election or defeat of candidates or to broadcast electioneering communications within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days of a general election. Thus, the following acts would all be felonies under §441b: The Sierra Club runs an ad, within the crucial phase of 60 days before the general election, that exhorts the public to disapprove of a Congressman who favors logging in national forests; the National Rifle Association publishes a book urging the public to vote for the challenger because the incumbent U. S. Senator supports a handgun ban; and the American Civil Liberties Union creates a Web site telling the public to vote for a Presidential candidate in light of that candidate’s defense of free speech. These prohibitions are classic examples of censorship.…

When word concerning the plot of the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington reached the circles of Government, some officials sought, by persuasion, to discourage its distribution. Under Austin, though, officials could have done more than discourage its distribution—they could have banned the film. After all, it, like Hillary, was speech funded by a corporation that was critical of Members of Congress. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington may be fiction and caricature; but fiction and caricature can be a powerful force.

Modern day movies, television comedies, or skits onYoutube.com might portray public officials or public policies in unflattering ways. Yet if a covered transmission during the blackout period creates the background for candidate endorsement or opposition, a felony occurs solely because a corporation, other than an exempt media corporation, has made the “purchase, payment, distribution, loan, advance, deposit, or gift of money or anything of value” in order to engage in political speech. Speech would be suppressed in the realm where its necessity is most evident: in the public dialogue preceding a real election. Governments are often hostile to speech, but under our law and our tradition it seems stranger than fiction for our Government to make this political speech a crime. Yet this is the statute’s purpose and design.

The Chief Justice concurs:

The Government urges us in this case to uphold a direct prohibition on political speech. It asks us to embrace a theory of the First Amendment that would allow censorship not only of television and radio broadcasts, but of pamphlets, posters, the Internet, and virtually any other medium that corporations and unions might find useful in expressing their views on matters of public concern. Its theory, if accepted, would empower the Government to prohibit newspapers from running editorials or opinion pieces supporting or opposing candidates for office, so long as the newspapers were owned by corporations—as the major ones are.

No, I have not yet read the entire 183 pages of syllabus, majority, concurring and dissenting opinions. I have too many irons in the fire at the moment to accomplish that. But what I have read tells me this Supreme Court opinion is a good thing for America.