Examiner Editorial: Court ruling a welcome blow for free speech 

An essential truth lays at the heart of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling Thursday in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. As Justice Anthony Kennedy observed, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” The 5-4 majority thus upheld the First Amendment rights of individuals, organized and speaking through a corporation, to say their piece on any issue or candidate without getting prior permission from government bureaucrats at the FEC. Besides Kennedy, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, the majority included Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, who were appointed by President George W. Bush, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who were appointed by President George H.W. Bush.

The immediate effect of Citizens United is to overturn one of the foundations of current campaign finance regulation, the FEC’s ban on political advocacy for or against congressmen seeking re-election or their challengers that is paid for by for-profit and nonprofit corporations. But a close reading of the decision suggests the court has also laid the vital groundwork for a more thoroughgoing repeal of the intricate and growing web of campaign finance reform-inspired limitations on political expression.

In his majority opinion, Kennedy noted that “campaign finance regulations now impose unique and complex rules on 71 distinct entities. These entities are subject to separate rules for 33 different types of political speech. The FEC has adopted 568 pages of regulations, 1,278 pages of explanations and justifications for those regulations, and 1,771 advisory opinions since 1975,” the year of its creation by Congress in the wake of the Watergate scandals.

That very complexity means, Kennedy wrote, that “a speaker who wants to avoid threats of criminal liability and the heavy costs of defending against FEC enforcement must ask a governmental agency for prior permission to speak. These onerous restrictions thus function as the equivalent of prior restraint by giving the FEC power analogous to licensing laws implemented in 16th- and 17th-century England, laws and governmental practices of the sort that the First Amendment was drawn to prohibit.” In other words, federal laws that limit political speech are not made constitutional merely by slapping a label on them that reads “campaign finance reform.” Friends of liberty everywhere should bless the Supreme Court for what it has now done in defense of the First Amendment.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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