"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
--First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
"When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves."
--Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy
Justice Kennedy wrote the long overdue decision of the U.S. Supreme Court last week letting even corporations and labor unions advertise their political opinions. As if this were a free country.
Who says freedom of speech, even when bound and gagged in the name of "campaign finance reform," cannot be restored and invigorated? This election year, the American people will be able to hear from all sides even within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. Which are the bounds the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform and incumbent-protection act put on free speech -- and which a revamped Supreme Court now has lifted, hooray and Hallelujah!
Bradley Smith, a professor of law who fought the good fight for freedom of speech when he was on the Federal Election Commission, was one of those celebrating this overdue victory for basic principle. This ruling, he hoped, "marks an end to 20 years of jurisprudence in which the (Supreme Court) has provided less protection to core political speech than it has to internet pornography, the transmission of stolen information, flag burning, commercial advertising, topless dancing and burning a cross outside an African-American church."
The court may actually be getting back to protecting the essence of the First Amendment: free speech in a free country. No matter who is exercising the right to it -- even corporations, politicians and labor unions. And no matter when they choose to exercise it. Even just before an election, when you'd think freedom of speech should be most prized and protected. Let 'em all have their say. As the founders surely intended.
Let us now hear from the sage Mr. Dooley, the fictive Irish barkeep who from time to time commented on American politics and society at the turn of another century. Whether the Constitution follows the flag, he observed about a case concerning constitutional rights in newly acquired territories, the "supreme coort follows th' iliction returns."
In this case, buttressed by the support of two recent appointees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito, the court decided that the First Amendment means what it says. It took a while for the court to reverse its original, ill-advised approval of these restrictions on free speech, but it finally has done so.
You can hear freedom ring in the yelps of those who would like to limit corporate and union spending to only their campaigns. Barack Obama, for example. The president immediately denounced the decision as having given "a green light to a new stampede of special-interest money in our politics."
This great populist from Goldman Sachs -- its employees contributed $995,000 to his presidential campaign -- doubtless would like to see the old stampede of special-interest money continue to flood his campaign coffers. Indeed, his definition of a special interest doesn't seem to include the labor unions that donated all that money and all those workers to his presidential campaign. Hypocrisy, thy name is Campaign Finance Reform.
The issues in this case were so clear that even Justice Kennedy, the swing vote on the court, delivered a clear decision for once, calling censorship censorship. And striking it down in this 5-to-4 ruling.
Call it a victory for freedom for now, since freedom is always at risk every time the judiciary is reshaped. Which is why judicial appointments are so important, even all-important on occasions like this.
Let it be noted that the court did uphold laws that require campaign contributions to be revealed at Internet speed, which is the best protection for the public's right to know. Rather than restrict freedom of speech by law, it is better to rely on freedom of the press to keep the political process open.
As always, it will be up to a free and enterprising press to follow the money trail and tell the public just where it leads. For the First Amendment is all of a piece. Freedom of the press is a necessary adjunct to freedom of speech, and vice versa. Each can keep the other vigorous, exposed and honest. Much to the benefit of a free people.