The First Amendment famously reads, “Congress shall pass no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Congress, ever sneaky, has looked very closely at the First Amendment’s wording. If they can’t pass laws abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, maybe they can pass laws abridging the freedom of speech and of the press.
I kid, of course. No lawyer in their right mind would use that argument in court. The real justifications for most speech and press-abridging laws — collectively known as campaign finance regulations — are actually much flimsier.
They mainly have to do with protecting politicians from criticism. For example, a group called Citizens United released a partisan documentary last year called Hillary: The Movie. Basically a feature-length missive against then-Sen. Hillary Clinton and her presidential candidacy, the FEC blocked the movie from pay-per-view television during the 2008 primary season.
The movie was effectively censored because corporations (and unions) are not allowed to engage in certain types of political speech when an election is near. Citizens United lists some corporations among its donors, and thus was not allowed to show the movie as widely as they would have liked.
Citizens United got upset about all this, naturally. So they sued. Their case made it to the Supreme Court last year. Unwilling to make too hasty a decision, the Court re-heard oral arguments yesterday. The early bets are that Citizens United will win a partial victory, though one never knows until the decision is actually handed down.
Had the movie not been about politics, it would have faced no such obstacles. Political speech is treated very differently from other types of speech these days. This is a troubling trend. At heart, campaign finance regulations are a roundabout way of saying: no criticizing candidates!
Perhaps the First Amendment is a bit wordy. “Congress shall pass no law” is quite enough.