Supreme Court finds key part of campaign finance law unconstitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the McCain-Feingold finance law violated the free speech rights of corporations to spend as much as they wished to back or oppose political candidates. -DB

Courthouse News Service
January 21, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Supreme Court today killed a central part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and ruled that corporations may spend as much as they wish to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress. The 5-4 vote left intact limits on corporate gifts to individual candidates.

Writing in dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the majority “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation.”

But Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, called McCain-Feinberg’s restrictions “censorship … vast in its reach.”

Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit, filed suit after it was blocked from airing its anti-Hillary Clinton movie, “Hillary: The Movie,” on pay-per-view TV before the 2008 primary elections.

The group said the decision by the Federal Election Commission violated its free-speech rights. The movie features various pundits discussing Clinton’s bid for the presidency.

Last year, a federal court in Washington, D.C., deemed the film corporate engineering, saying it was “susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her.”

After initially turning down the case, the high court reconsidered and convened early to hear it.

Citizens United urged the justices to decide the case on narrow grounds, arguing that “Hillary” doesn’t qualify as “electioneering communication” under campaign-finance law and that video-on-demand doesn’t constitute a commercial broadcast.

But the Supreme Court said its ruling had to be broad, because a narrow decision would chill political speech.

A broad approach required the justices to tackle the validity of Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, in which the Supreme Court rejected a First Amendment challenge of a Michigan campaign-finance law.

“The ongoing chill upon speech that is beyond all doubt protected makes it necessary in this case to invoke the earlier precedents that a statute which chills speech can and must be invalidated where its facial invalidity has been demonstrated,” Kennedy wrote.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Stevens in dissent.

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