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Supreme Court justices question campaign finance law

At a hearing Wednesday on 'Hillary: The Movie,' conservative justices repeatedly asked whether limits on corporate contributions in federal elections are too broad and amount to censorship of free speech.

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The government responded that the documentary was similar to a pre-election broadcast attack advertisement and thus could be regulated by the government under the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA).

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The high court is considering whether to overturn the section of BCRA that deals with corporate spending before and during elections. In addition, the court is considering overturning a 1990 decision in a case called Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The 1990 case established the legal foundation for the corporate restrictions later adopted in BCRA.

'Corporate electioneering'?

In a joint statement, Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, the two cosponsors of BCRA, warned that overturning the corporate restrictions in the law would be a "drastic step."

"At stake in this case are the voices of millions and millions of Americans that could be drowned out by large corporations if the decades-old restrictions on corporate electioneering are called into question," the senators said.

"During his confirmation hearing, Chief Justice Roberts, whom we both voted for, promised to respect precedent," Senators McCain and Feingold said. "If he casts the deciding vote to overrule [the two legal precedents] it would completely contradict that promise, and could have serious consequences for our democracy."

Others were pleased with the apparent direction of the court.

"Based on today's argument, free speech advocates can be optimistic for a broad vindication of First Amendment rights," said Steve Simpson, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice. "Several justices recognized that a piecemeal approach to free speech is insufficient to protect vital constitutional rights."

Mr. Simpson added, "Corporate speech bans are nothing more than government censorship of selected speakers. The simple fact is it takes money, including corporate money, to speak up and be heard. Under the First Amendment, the government has no business deciding which speakers gain admittance to the marketplace of ideas."

Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, holds a different view.

"Since the dawn of the Republic, the court has recognized that corporations are artificial entities that enjoy unique advantages and must therefore be subject to greater government oversight," Mr. Kendall said. "If the court turns back on this constitutional text and history, it will blatantly disregard the will of the people and unleash corporate influence on elections."

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