January 22, 2010 By Amanda J. Reinecker
On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment and appropriately struck down government prohibitions on many sorts of privately-funded political advertising. In doing so, Heritage Foundation legal scholar Hans von Spakovsky argues, the court "upheld some of the most important principles: the right to engage in free speech, particularly political speech, and the right to freely associate."
The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, originated as a question about campaign finance laws and whether they apply to an unflattering film about then-Senator Hillary Clinton. After the government argued that campaign finance laws could even lead to bans on books, the Court ordered a rare re-argument to address the broader constitutionality of limiting corporations' independent spending during federal election campaigns.
It was a question of "ancient First Amendment principles," the Court stated in its majority opinion. It is no coincidence that the rights to free speech and assembly are among the first mentioned in our Bill of Rights -- our Founders recognized that these rights are essential to the preservation of a free government.
"Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy and the means to hold officials accountable to the people," Spakovsky argues. But the right to free speech is not limited to individual persons, he argues. For-profit and non-profit organizations are greatly "affected, damaged, or even lost" by the laws Congress passes, so there is "no rational reason why they should not be able to engage in independent political activity."
Those who criticize the Court's 5-4 decision fail to recognize a key component about this critical First Principle: free speech "is written in terms of 'speech,' not speakers," as Justice Scalia explained in a concurring opinion. It is a right that applies to all. To deny it to would be an obfuscation of the written law and a violation of a fundamental right.