“If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”
These are the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in a historic Supreme Court decision that began with a man, a movie, and a message that bothered the bureaucratic Washington machine.
In January of 2008, as the Democratic presidential primaries between Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) were raging, filmmaker Dave Bossie set about advertising and distributing his 90-minute documentary “Hillary: The Movie.” (Full disclosure: Callista and I host and produce movies with Dave.)
The film offered a critical look at the New York senator then vying for the presidency. But Bossie was stunned when government officials from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) told him the film couldn’t be aired or even advertised. Their reason? Sen. Clinton was a candidate for federal office, so Bossie’s film was illegal under campaign finance law.
Bossie’s production company, Citizens United, sued, claiming its first amendment right to free speech was being denied by the government. And the Supreme Court decision announced last week was not only a vindication of the free speech rights of all Americans, it was a significant step toward dismantling the incumbent-protecting political machine created by bureaucratic campaign finance “reforms” like McCain-Feingold.
By declaring that government has no business suppressing the political speech of groups like Citizens United, the Supreme Court has begun to make it easier for middle class candidates to take on the rich and the powerful.
The Bureaucratic, Anti-Freedom Model of Campaign Finance Was Wrong
Citizens United v. FEC is one more piece of evidence that the model of bureaucratic campaign finance reform — of government restricting the freedom of Americans to criticize politicians rather than maximizing our freedom to question our leadership — was wrong.
The Founders understood the importance of the unfettered right of citizens to complain about their government. They recognized the danger of politicians controlling or censoring the debate about themselves. That’s why they wrote in the First Amendment to the Constitution that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.”
These words and this right have been stunningly perverted by laws like McCain-Feingold, which was explicitly a case of Congress making a law abridging our freedom of speech — of incumbent politicians attempting to censor the people’s discussion of whether they should remain in office.
Government Can’t Limit the Ability of Associations of Citizens to Spend in Campaigns
Citizens United was a great victory for free speech because it declared that government can’t limit the right of corporations and unions — the “associations of citizens” Justice Kennedy refers to above — from spending freely to support or oppose candidates in elections.
It struck down the part of the McCain-Feingold law that censored corporate-funded political ads within 60 days of federal elections and within 30 days of primaries.
Although it left in place the prohibition on corporate donations directly to candidates and on the ability of corporations to coordinate their activities with candidates, it reversed an earlier high court ruling that allowed government to prevent corporations, nonprofits and unions from spending money independently to influence the outcome of an election.
Making it Easier for Middle Class Candidates to Take on Incumbents
The near-hysterical reaction of proponents of bureaucratic campaign finance laws such as big money fund raiser and incumbent Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) that the decision is “un-American” and “a threat to our democracy” are exactly wrong.
Laws like McCain-Feingold give incumbent politicians in Washington tremendous advantages over middle-class citizen challengers. Incumbents have literally millions of dollars worth of taxpayer-funded staff, traveling and mailing privileges.
And thanks to McCain-Feingold imposed limits on what individuals can contribute to candidates, rich politicians who can spend unlimited amounts of their own money and don’t have to worry about raising money in small amounts have a tremendous advantage.
Former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) used his personal fortune from Goldman Sachs to first buy a Senate seat and then the governorship. And New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg would have been defeated by a virtual unknown last November if he hadn’t been able to spend his millions.
Citizens United v. FEC doesn’t threaten our democracy. It strengthens it by making it easier for middle-class candidates to compete against the wealthy and incumbents.
Real Reform Would Be Unlimited Donations Posted on the Internet
But as significant as it was, the Court’s decision wasn’t real campaign finance reform.
Real reform under our Constitution will only come when Americans and associations of Americans are allowed to give unlimited amounts of after-tax money to the candidates and campaigns of their choice.
Donors should be given this freedom and required to post on the Internet every night what they’re spending and how they’re spending. That way, voters would know who is funding whom, and how much. Armed with that knowledge, Americans can be trusted to make an informed, truly democratic choice.
Predictably, just the prospect of voters making such a free and informed choice has the Washington establishment machine up in arms.
Can We Trust the American People Mr. President? Yes, We Can.
In a breathtaking display of hypocrisy, President Obama used his weekly radio address last week to pledge to work with Congress to reverse the decision and declared: “I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest. The last thing we need to do is hand more influence to the lobbyists in Washington or more power to the special interests to tip the outcome of elections” (emphasis added).
This, from the president who negotiated back-room deals with special interests in order to force Democratic health care reform on the American people.
This, from a president whose massive expansion of government into the private sector has set off a stampede of lobbyists to Washington to claim their piece of the taxpayers’ pie.
But even more glaring than the hypocrisy is the obvious contempt that supporters of bureaucratic campaign finance have for the American people.
Ultimately, the question comes down to one of trust. Can we trust the people, and not the government, to determine our political future? The answer, Mr. President, is a familiar one:
“Yes we can.”
Newt’s Quick Links
• American Solutions will be hosting a “live blog” of the President’s State of the Union speech tonight. You can sign up here.
• As you may know, Callista and I host and produce documentaries in partnership with Citizen’s United. Visit GingrichProductions.com to watch previews and learn more.