Today’s Supreme Court ruling striking down provisions of the McCain-Feingold federal campaign-finance law is a tremendous victory for free speech in the United States. The 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission upholds the principle that that 2002 law and other similar attempts to regulate campaign finance flouted, namely, that the government should not regulate political speech.
The case grew out of a 2008 federal ban on the showing of a documentary film, Hillary: The Movie, during the presidential primaries in which Hillary Clinton, the object of the movie’s criticism, was a candidate. McCain-Feingold allowed the Federal Election Commission to stop the showing of the film because a corporation produced it, even though the corporation in question was a nonprofit. This case aptly illustrated the way this law did not so much protect the electoral process from the corrupting influence of money as it protected politicians from the effects of political speech that they did not like. Far from bolstering the democratic process, McCain-Feingold suppressed it. Like just about every other campaign-finance law that has been passed since the 1970s, when the Watergate scandal gave impetus to a drive to “reform” election spending, this law did not eliminate the influence of money on politics, but it did play favorites as to which sort of speech may or may not be legal. While efforts to bring transparency into campaign finance remain laudable, the process by which money began to be shunted first into political action committees and then, in the wake of McCain-Feingold, into new classes of unaccountable groups did nothing to make the system fairer or cleaner. Instead, it granted a government agency the power to regulate or suppress the one kind of speech that the founders of our republic would have agreed was inviolate: political speech. The court has now chipped away at this expansion of federal power to allow corporations and other groups the freedom to advocate on elections as they please.
The responses to this ruling from some in the political class are predictable. President Obama has issued a call to Congress to pass legislation to overturn the will of the courts, something that we trust the new absence of a filibuster-proof majority for the Democrats will render impossible.
Interestingly, among the first reactions was a blog post by New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny, who claimed that, “at first blush, Republican candidates would seem to benefit from this seismic change in how political campaigns are conducted in America.” To back this assertion up, he quoted the president’s demagogic statement that claimed the “Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
As Zeleny also noted, labor unions and a host of Left-leaning groups are now also free to spend money to publicize their views, as they like. It should also be pointed out that the notion that big business is a dependable backer of the GOP is a myth. The crony capitalism that the bank bailouts have highlighted in the past two years has aptly illustrated the fact that many industries, including the denizens of Wall Street, have a stronger loyalty to corporate welfare that benefits them than they do to the principles of free enterprise. The steady flow of money from firms such as Goldman, Sachs (the principal survivor and beneficiary of the latest shakedowns) to Democratic candidates like Obama is proof of this.
The point here is that more political speech is not a danger to the republic; it is instead the lifeblood of democracy. The only ones to gain from the suppression of views via campaign-spending laws are those politicians who are the subject of critical scrutiny. Acting in the name of “reform,” campaign-finance-restriction advocates have sought to restrict political speech, effectively empowering the politicians and the mainstream media at the expense of the electorate. In a democracy, the people must be free to sort out the views of a host of disparate elements. The free flow of critical advertisements and independent documentaries such as Hillary: The Movie challenge the monopoly of public expression that such a system breeds. Let’s hope this ruling marks the beginning of the end of an era in which the political class used its legislative power to silence their critics.