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A tremendous victory for free speech for citizens

Posted by Judy K. Warner on January 22, 2010

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision doesn’t directly relate to refugees, but Ann and I have long been concerned with free speech, including threats to speech because of political correctness.  As bloggers we are always aware that there are those who would like to control the Internet in the interest of ideology.  The high court yesterday upheld, in Citizens United v. FEC, “the right to engage in free speech, particularly political speech, and the right to freely associate” by overturning major provisions of the McCain Feingold campaign finance reform law which restricted political advertising by corporations, among other things.

Almost all the commentary I’ve seen has been about how big money will now control elections — that is, corporations and the rich. Very few seem to understand the larger meaning of the decision. The suit was brought by Citizens United, not by Exxon or Wal-Mart. It was about the group’s right to show a film critical of Hillary Clinton during the campaign season. Citizens United is a corporation, as are most such organizations.

The worst thing about McCain Feingold was that it prevented ordinary people from banding together to influence elections by advertising. What could be more in line with the First Amendment than that? It is political speech, which was originally the very focus of freedom of speech as named in the Bill of Rights. Banning that kind of speech gave us the absurd situation in which nude dancing was held by the Supreme Court to be legitimate expression under the First Amendment, but pointing out a candidate’s good or bad points in an ad was not.

The only commentary I have seen so far which emphasizes this point is an excellent post by Hans von Spakovsky on the Heritage Foundation’s blog, The Foundry, from which I took the words in boldface above. Here’s a bit of it:

Almost every one of the many associations we have in this country (no matter which side of the political aisle they are on), from the NAACP to the Sierra Club to the National Rifle Association, are also corporations. Yet those corporate associations were prohibited under penalty of criminal and civil sanctions from expressing the views of their members in the political arena over which particular candidates should be elected to uphold the positions on important issues of public policy that their members believe in unless they complied with certain very restrictive, complex provisions.

For-profit corporations and labor unions were also prohibited from engaging in independent political activity even though their businesses and the jobs of their employees and members can be greatly affected, damaged, or even lost because of the actions taken by elected members of Congress. There is no rational reason why they should not be able to engage in independent political activity.

Von Spakovsky grounds the decision in basic principles:

It is no surprise that these rights are in the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. The Founders, who had fought a long, hard war with the English crown to establish our independence, knew that the ability to associate freely (think the Sons of Liberty) and to engage in political speech without being censored by the government were fundamental rights crucial to our republic. That is why the Supreme Court’s decision throwing out a federal ban on independent political expenditures by corporations (including non-profits) is a return to, as the Court said, “ancient First Amendment principles.”

Read the whole thing; it’s short and better than any other commentary I’ve read so far.

I believe that there will be ramifications of this decision far beyond what any commentary has touched on. Not being psychic or a legal wizard I don’t know what they are, but they might include an end to the IRS persecution of churches and other nonprofits for talking about elections, perhaps an end to the ban on lobbying by certain nonprofits, and many other things, as Americans exercise their traditional practice of exploring the meaning of their rights.

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