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Supreme Court Rules on Three Free Speech Cases

The Supreme Court ruled Monday on three First Amendment cases dealing with a high school student, campaign ads and faith-based initiatives. Legal expert Marcia Coyle talks about their implications.

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    Three of today's court decisions involve First Amendment issues, and each was decided 5-4. In one case, the court ruled that Wisconsin Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, should have been allowed to broadcast a campaign ad during the final two months before the 2004 elections. The ad asked viewers to urge Wisconsin's two senators not to filibuster President Bush's judicial nominees.

    Local broadcasters said the message violated campaign finance laws because of its timing, because it mentioned candidates by name, and because corporations and unions paid for it. But today, the high court ruled these issue ads are legal.

    As always, NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal was in the court. She walks us now through what turned out to be a very eventful day.

  • MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal:

    Busy day.


    Was this first case a big blow to McCain-Feingold, the campaign finance law?


    I think most experts who are sifting through the decisions now feel that it marks or signals a huge change in how the court views these types of regulations by Congress.


    Tell me how.


    Well, what the court did here was it took a look at a provision of the 2002 McCain-Feingold act, a provision that Congress used to try to close a loophole, a big loophole used by corporations, nonprofit and for profit, as well as unions, to get around the ban on direct contributions to candidates. These corporations and unions would funnel thousands of dollars into so-called issue ads.

    Some issue ads are genuine, Congress felt. They just deal with a controversy. Other issue ads are sham issue ads, and that's what Congress was trying to get at. They really were intended to advocate for the election or defeat of a specific candidate; they didn't use the magic words, but they did allow groups to get around the ban on direct contributions.

    The court had upheld what Congress said in 2002 a year later, and it sounded — the provision was constitutional. But it later said that there may be some cases where the ban on advertising before a primary and before a general election could hit a genuine issue ad and there would be a First Amendment problem applied to that specific ad. Wisconsin Right to Life brought that case, saying this provision is unconstitutional as applied to our ads.