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Editorial: Court advances in battle to protect First Amendment rights

Jan. 28, 2010

Claire Taylor | Lariat Staff

In a closely divided five to four decision that toppled former Congressional precedents on Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that the government does not have the constitutional right to prohibit campaign spending by corporations.

The court rightfully overturned the precedent on the basis that the Congress, by controlling the money that companies want to spend on campaigns, was violating the First Amendment right to express political opinion. The First Amendment is an honored right, which must be continuously fought for.

The case stemmed from an incident that occurred as a result of a documentary funded by Citizens United titled "Hillary: The Movie," which was critical of current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and released during her attempt to gain the presidential nomination in the Democratic primaries of 2008.

Citizens United was prohibited by the Federal Election Commission from releasing the film nationwide. However, Citizens United planned to release the film on certain television stations and ran advertisements for the documentary.

The lower courts decided that Citizens United was in violation of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 that prohibited critical partisan broadcast funded by corporations within 30 days of primary elections and 60 days of actual elections.

The Supreme Court made its decision based on the fact that Citizens United is a nonprofit conservative corporation and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 was not applicable to the situation that was at hand.

Dissenters were quick to point out flaws in the decision made by the court. One flaw was that the First Amendment applies to individual speech, and corporations are not individuals. Dissenters state that the judgment was based on a law that doesn't apply to the situation.

Among the dissenters was President Barack Obama, who said of the decision, "I can't think of anything more devastating to the public interest." He also maintained that his administration would do all that it could to assist Congress in developing a "forceful, bipartisan response to this decision."

Another counter-opinion that was brought before the court was the increased possibility that now big business would run the elections, that the candidate with the most ties to companies with swelling pocketbooks would undoubtedly win every time.

This bold, conservative step for the court is to be commended. From the government assumption of so many businesses to the health care debacle that will require citizens to have health care or to pay a federal tax, it is encouraging to see the Supreme Court take such a forceful stand on the behalf of individual rights.

Although corporations are not individuals, they are composed of individuals who may just want to spend the money they have earned for the company where and how they would like, uninhibited by the unconstitutional laws laid down by Congress.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the author of the opinion for the majority, defended the decision based on "the right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak and to use information to reach consensus. [It] is a precondition to enlightened self-government."

While some may not agree with the Supreme Court's decision, it must be realized that the court did precisely what it was created to do: determine the constitutionality of the actions of the other two branches of the government. Congress was limiting the rights of the people by wielding the power to limit how money is spent to fund mass media-based political speech.

Thus, while the decision may be controversial, it ultimately fortifies the rights that are laid out by the First Amendment and is a step to maintain the right of citizens to vocalize concern they may have with the government.