Citizens United against Censorship; the Supreme Court Considers Government Controls over Speech

Article excerpt


The Supreme Court is hearing arguments today regarding Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The case could decide what political speech is prohibited by federal campaign finance laws. To put it simply, campaign finance laws constrain free speech. This showdown provides the high court with an opportunity to make clear that it's not the proper role of government to limit how much is being spent on campaigns or by whom.

The controversy of the day is over a film released during the 2008 presidential campaign. Hillary The Movie didn't expressly advocate that Hillary Rodham Clinton be defeated in her bid for the presidency, though most viewers would conclude that her failure was the desired outcome of its producers, Citizens United. The stakes are high. As David N. Bossie, president of Citizens United, explains on the facing page, McCain-Feingold made it a felony offense punishable by up to five years in prison to broadcast our movie or advertising promoting sales of the movie during the 2008 election cycle solely because of their political content.

While defenders of campaign-finance laws argue that Mr. Bossie's documentary should count as a campaign expenditure, it's not obvious where the line would be drawn or what subject matter constitutes prohibited speech during a campaign. We shudder to think of government regulators having to approve what can and cannot be said at any given time in this country.

The Citizens United case demonstrates why campaign-finance laws can't limit overall campaign spending. Suppose government imposes strict limits on how much money candidates can spend on elections, and all third-party expenditures are banned. …