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Supreme Court: Campaign-finance limits violate free speech

The Supreme Court campaign finance ruling on Thursday means corporations can spend freely on political ads leading up to elections. The Thursday decision invalidates a part of 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law that sought to limit corporate influence.

By Staff writer / January 21, 2010

Common Cause President Bob Edgar (r.) and Public Campaign President Nick Nyhart (l.), accompanied by Public Campaign Legal Center Executive Director Gerald Hebert (c.), lambast the Supreme Court's campaign-finance ruling during a news conference Thursday outside the Supreme Court in Washington.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

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The US Supreme Court has struck down a major portion of a 2002 campaign-finance reform law, saying it violates the free-speech right of corporations to engage in public debate of political issues.

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In a landmark 5-to-4 decision announced Thursday, the high court overturned a 1990 legal precedent and reversed a position it took in 2003, when a different lineup of justices upheld government restrictions on independent political expenditures by corporations during elections.

“Government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker’s corporate identity,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the 57-page majority opinion. “No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations.”

Ahead, a flood of corporate/union election spending?

The decision opens the gates for what campaign reform advocates warn will be a flood of corporate spending in future elections. The ruling is expected to permit similar political expenditures from the general treasuries of labor unions, as well.

“This is the most radical and destructive campaign-finance decision in the history of the Supreme Court,” said Fred Worthheimer, president of Democracy 21.

“Today’s decision is the Super Bowl of really bad decisions. It returns us to the days of the robber barons,” said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause.

Among political leaders, Democrats attacked the decision and Republicans praised it.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky lauded the decision as “monumental.” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said he was pleased by the decision. “These are the bedrock principles that underpin our system of governance and strengthen our democracy,” he said.

From the White House, President Obama called the ruling a “major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

Electioneering vs. free speech

At issue was a provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), commonly referred to as the McCain-Feingold law. Section 203 of the law barred corporations and labor unions from using general treasury funds to pay for advertisements or other broadcasts that mention a political candidate in a way that Federal Election Commission officials might view as electioneering. The ban applied 30 days before any primary and 60 days before a general election.