In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether the federal government could prohibit a nonprofit corporation from showing a movie that criticized presidential candidate Hillary Clinton within 30 days of an election. Answering “yes” would have declared censorship of political speech is appropriate under the First Amendment.
Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority opinion declared government may not censor political speech or impede the right to spend money delivering such speech to the public during an election. The ruling protects First Amendment rights for everyone–individuals, unions, corporations, and other associations.
The Citizens United ruling methodically uprooted nearly every legal doctrine that stood poised to gut the First Amendment in the name of “campaign finance reform.”
The Supreme Court’s declared goal is to ensure everyone feels safe to speak and to spend what’s needed to project one’s thoughts about politics to the rest of the world. In place of arbitrary balancing tests, Citizens United requires the First Amendment to be enforced through broad, easily understood and widely applicable principles.
Citizens United is the most important free-speech case in decades. Its reasoning suggests the Court will soon strike down all campaign finance regulations other than reasonable limits on contributions made directly to candidates and basic requirements about advertising disclaimers and spending disclosures. Sadly, politicians of all stripes are looking to circumvent the Court’s ruling.
Using the wiggle room afforded by the Court’s reluctance to strike down the FEC’s disclaimer and disclosure requirements, Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett proposed a new registration and reporting system enforced by the threat of civil penalties and criminal charges. Unlike the FEC’s regulations, which the Court found were meant to “help citizens ‘make informed choices in the political marketplace,’” these new speech regulations derive from the desire of politicians and political parties to maintain control over the political game.
Even worse, Bennett’s proposed scheme was later amended to threaten political organizations that use the corporate form with civil and criminal penalties unless they comply with burdensome “political committee” reporting requirements. This move essentially establishes under Arizona law the very federal regulatory structure struck down in Citizens United.
In short, the wrong message has been received from the Citizens United case. Defenders of free speech and limited government must seize back the initiative by disposing of the volumes of complex campaign speech regulations that throttle political free speech–starting with Arizona’s regulation of “political committees.”
Read Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission: A Case for Limiting Campaign Finance Regulations here