The Limits of Campaign Finance Law Abridgement of the First Amendment Tested in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission
During the 2008 presidential campaign, an organization called Citizens United produced an anti-Hillary documentary called “Hillary: the Movie.” The movie was available on pay-per-view cable channels until the FEC pulled the plug claiming that the broadcast violated campaign finance law. The case, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, is now being considered by the Supreme Court.
During oral arguments, the government’s attorney revealed that campaign finance law as currently written could be interpreted to restrict not only documentaries such as “Hillary” but any other political speech “broadcast” during a campaign. A banned “broadcast” could include a store advertising the sale of candidate dolls, toys, or action figures. Even if the advertisement makes no direct endorsements nor advocates the defeat of a candidate, the mere mention of a candidate’s name or likeness would violate current election law.
But surely books would be safe…right?
Not if the book is “broadcast” on a device such as a Kindle, says the government’s attorney. While the FEC believes “dead tree editions” are currently safe from FEC regulation, former Chief of Staff and Council of the FEC Allison Hayward, says that such regulations could be imposed if congress brought such an interpretation into the law.
In the very beginning of the video below, Steve Simpson, Senior Attorney for the Institute for Justice says something which bears repeating here because he captures exactly the First Amendment problems found in current campaign finance law:
“The problem is not too much money in politics; the problem is too much power in government. Government regulates everything and of course, people want to affect the course of the government. So the campaign finance reformers ultimately what they want to prevent is that. It’s the ability to affect the course of our government; it’s the ability to affect which way people vote. That’s the dirty little secret of campaign finance law. They don’t just want to control money, they want to control speech.”
I would like to believe that free speech will ultimately prevail in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, but given SCOTUS’s history, ruling on the side of the Constitution is by no means sure thing. I also can’t help but wonder how an Obama appointed Justice would rule if this case was before him or her. Which side would receive the most “empathy,” the federal government or a private organization or individual citizen? We already know that such a judge would not be considering “abstract legal theories” such as entailed in the First Amendment.