On January 21, the Supreme
Court held a special session to announce its decision to lift long-standing campaign
finance restrictions. The ruling will make it easier for organizations to campaign
for or against a candidate using broadcast media.
Reaction to the court's
decision ran the spectrum. President Obama condemned it. In a statement he warned
the result will be a "stampede of special interest money in our politics."
Republicans generally welcomed the decision. House Minority Leader John Boehner
called it a "big win for the First Amendment."
Hillary: The Movie
"Hillary: The Movie" played in several theaters and was also made into
During the 2008 presidential
campaigns, Citizens United, a conservative advocacy group that seeks to promote
"traditional American values," released "Hillary: The Movie." The documentary
was highly critical of Hillary Clinton, who was running for the Democratic Party's
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) claimed that
the film was a violation of campaign finance laws and pulled the plug.
Citizens United fought this decision all the way up to the Supreme Court. The
group argued that the right to distribute its movie was protected by the First
Amendment's promise of free speech.
Decision weakens McCain-Feingold
The FEC is comprised of six members appointed by the President.
The FEC's decision to prohibit
Citizens United's documentary stemmed from the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act. Part
of McCain-Feingold said ads paid for by corporations or unions that state the
name of a candidate would be outlawed within 30 days of a primary or caucus, and
within 60 days of a general election.
Congress created the FEC in 1975
to track the money spent in federal elections. Campaign finance laws sought to
ensure that wealthy individuals and organizations do not have too much control
in a given election.
As an interest group, Citizens United was subject
to the McCain-Feingold law. The FEC ruled that "Hillary: The Movie" was essentially
a long campaign ad. This wouldn't have been a problem, but the documentary was
released on January 15, 2008-- less than a month before "Super Tuesday" when the
largest number of states held primary elections -- making it illegal.
decides to tackle the big issue
The Court could have focused narrowly on the FEC's consitutional right
to ban the documentary, but it decided to examine campaign finance rules in general.
this decision, the Supreme Court reversed two previous precedents on campaign
finance rules. |
The Court's decision strikes down McCain-Feingold's advertising time-frame,
as well as a 20-year ban on corporate spending in politics.
organizations had to raise money specifically for political purposes if they wanted
to campaign for or against a candidate. This was done through an organization's
Political Action Committee (PAC).
Under the Court's ruling, corporations
and unions may now use general funds to create ads for the candidates of their
choice, although they still cannot give directly to a candidate. Direct campaign
contributions must still be made through an organization's PAC.
views of the First Amendment
Click here to learn more about
the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court's decision
was split, with the five more conservative justices arguing that the FEC's strict
advertising limits restrained free speech in a way that was unconstitutional.
The justices wanted to defend the "open marketplace of ideas," Marcia Coyle
of the National Law Journal told the NewsHour.
The four more liberal
justices wrote a passionate dissent in which Justice John Paul Stevens argued
that corporations were not human beings, and that this was a "distinction that
was significant in the context of elections, that corporations, their interests
may have fundamental conflicts with the interests of the electorate," Coyle explained.
But the "swing vote," moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy equated the old
laws to "censorship."
The case boiled down to different interpretations
of the First Amendment.
"The First Amendment is about freedom of speech.
It's not about freedom to spend unlimited amounts of money. It's that difference
that makes our political system a democracy ruled by the people, rather than a
plutocracy ruled by money or those who have the most money," Monica Youn from
the liberal Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law
argued on the NewsHour.
"It very well might lead to a lot more spending
by corporations and special interest, but that is precisely what the First Amendment
was designed to allow. A lot of spending by a lot of different people and groups
in an election is called a debate. And that is precisely what the First Amendment
protects," countered Steve Simpson, the lead attorney on campaign finance law
at the Institute for Justice.
President Obama declared he will work with
Congress for a forceful response to the decision, but lawmakers' options are limited
now that the Supreme Court has broadly defined corporate and organizational rights
to free speech.