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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.

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Campaign-reform advocates said the provision was necessary to prevent a proliferation of noncandidate advertisements (paid for by wealthy corporations and unions) from crowding out the candidates’ own campaign ads.

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Critics of the regulation said it amounted to unconstitutional censorship. They argued that corporations should enjoy a First Amendment right to spend money and advocate political and policy positions during election seasons just as individuals can.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed with the critics. “Rapid changes in technology – and the creative dynamic inherent in the concept of free expression – counsel against upholding a law that restricts political speech in certain media or by certain speakers,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “The First Amendment does not permit Congress to make … categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.”

The dissent: 'integrity of elected institutions' at stake

In a 90-page dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens denounced the majority opinion as a dangerous rejection of common sense. “While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics,” he wrote.

“The court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation,” he said.

The high court decision leaves intact campaign contribution regulations – including laws barring campaign contributions to federal candidates from corporations and unions. It also leaves intact laws barring so-called soft-money contributions to political parties.

Corporate disclosure still required

In a second portion of its decision, the Supreme Court voted 8 to 1 to uphold a portion of BCRA requiring corporations and others to disclose their involvement in political advertisements. Those disclosures include identifying who is responsible for the content of an advertisement and who contributed money to support the making of the advertisement.

The lone dissent in that portion of the decision came from Justice Clarence Thomas.

In the main portion of the decision, Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and Samuel Alito.

Justice Stevens’ dissent was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.