It's true that in the last several years the Court has carved out exceptions to the law, as in FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life. But the complex skein of federal and state regulations of political speech remains. As Brad Smith, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, recently explained, campaign finance laws continue to regulate over "70 different types of speakers -- corporations, candidates, party officials, unions; and 30 different forms of speech, each with its own rules." There are more than 200 pages of statutory language, over 500 pages of regulations, over 1,700 pages of explanation and justification of these regulations, and over 2,000 advisory opinions by the Federal Election Commission interpreting all of this.
Many Americans are unaware of how much their free speech rights have been infringed. But as John Stossel reported, Becky Cornwall got a painful education. She opposed a ballot initiative that would have folded her town into the larger neighboring jurisdiction. Because she owned a printing shop, she made up signs saying "No Annexation." Some of her neighbors joined her cause and knocked on doors sporting "No Annexation" t-shirts and seeking signatures for a petition. Before you could say "grassroots political activity," she and her friends were slapped with a lawsuit for failing to register as an "issue committee" and listing all of their expenses.
Or take the case of Ada Fisher, a retired North Carolina doctor who twice ran for Congress. "She ran on a shoestring budget, campaigning out of her own car, making her own signs and buttons. For staff, she relied exclusively on volunteers." Unable to successfully navigate the 500 pages of FEC regulations, she and her (unpaid) campaign treasurer were fined $10,000 for late filings.
The Supreme Court will decide Citizens United v. FEC this term, the case testing whether it was permissible under the First Amendment for the FEC to block distribution of "Hillary: The Movie." It's possible that the Court will finally do what it ought to have done in 2003 -- overturn McCain/Feingold. If it does, its protection of political speech will at last rise to that accorded by the Court for topless dancing, flag burning, liquor advertising, and presumably "crush videos."
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