Thursday, January 21, 2010

U.S. Supreme Court Issues Landmark Ruling for Freedom of Expression

The United States Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion today on political advertisements by corporations. In a 5-4 ruling, the majority overturned decades of federal case law and part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

At issue was a movie produced by Citizens United, a non-profit corporation. The Federal Elections Commission had ruled that the movie amounted to a political advertisement, which violated federal election law banning such advertisements by corporations. Citizens United argued that the movie was an expression of free speech, a ban of which was unconstitutional.

The Court could have ruled narrowly that a corporate-funded movie or book was not a violation of the law, while retaining the ban on advertising for political candidates or issues by corporations. But in a sweeping decision, the Court ruled that corporations could use their own funds for any political advertising, subject to disclosure regulations, although not by donting those funds directly to candidates. The Court thus overturned as unconstitutional various federal cases and part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that banned corporate and union political advertisement within 30 days of an election.

The liberal argument in support of the federal restriction of political expression was that corporations, which are groups of people who freely associate themselves, are not people, despite longstanding legal precedent that they are legally understood as such. Liberals were concerned that people’s voices would be drowned out by corporations (i.e. groups of people). The Obama Administration recognized the flaw in the left’s argument that citizens united in non-profit corporations, like Citizens United, should be barred from exercising their collective freedom of expression. It attempted to limit the Court’s ruling to allow only non-profit corporations to use their funds for political advertising while continuing the restriction on for-profit corporations, but because federal election law made no distinction between for-profit and non-profit corporations, the Court struck the entire provision.

The ruling is believed also to allow political advertising by labor unions. Citizens United was joined by an unusual alliance of business and labor, conservatives and liberals. The Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, along with conservative organizations like the NRA supported Citizens United's case.

I would have voted with the majority, but in a concurrent opinion. The majority upheld its precedent that spending money equals freedom of speech. I would have argued that such political expression represents freedom of the press, i.e. the freedom to publish, a point upon which I intend to elaborate in a future post.

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