Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is defending the court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case that helped fuel hundreds of millions of dollars of spending by independent groups in the just-concluded campaign season.
Alito told roughly 1,500 people at a Federalist Society dinner this week that the First Amendment protects political speech, whether from an individual or a corporation. His comments to the overwhelmingly conservative and Republican crowd were part of his broader analysis of arguments put forth by the Obama administration in recent years that Alito said would curtail individual freedoms in favor of stronger federal power.
He said opponents of the 5-4 decision have conducted an effective, but misleading, public relations campaign by stressing that the court extended free speech rights to corporations.
He even praised opponents' pithy cleverness, noting such bumper stickers as "Life Does Not Begin at Incorporation."
But Alito rattled off the names of the nation's leading newspapers and television networks, all owned by corporations and possessing acknowledged rights to print and say what they wish about politics and government.
"The question is whether speech that goes to the very heart of government should be limited to certain preferred corporations; namely, media corporations," he said. "Surely the idea that the First Amendment protects only certain privileged voices should be disturbing to anybody who believes in free speech."
It was not the first time Alito has taken on critics of the outcome in the Citizens United case. At President Barack Obama's State of the Union address soon after the court's ruling in January 2010, the president said the court "reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections."
Alito, sitting with five other justices, was seen to mouth, "Not true."
The justice in his speech Thursday also briefly dealt with high court cases involving religion, private property, surveillance, immigration, and health care. In the latter case, of course, Alito was among four justices who dissented from the ruling that upheld Obama's health care overhaul.
But he noted that, even in the health care ruling, the court rejected administration arguments in favor of congressional power at the expense of the states and individuals.
Taken together, Alito said, the views put forth by the government begin to suggest a vision of society "in which the federal government towers over people." He noted that in several cases, not a single justice endorsed the administration's arguments.
He also humorously recounted his experience at Yale Law School in the early 1970s when he was a student of constitutional law professor Charles Reich, who by then was more interested in American counterculture than the law.
He quoted from Reich's bestselling "The Greening of America," in which the author painted a frightening picture of a disintegrating society and called the era a "moment of utmost sterility, darkest night, most extreme peril."
Here, Alito paused and, to the delight of a crowd dismayed by Obama's re-election, added, "So our current situation is nothing new."
Conservative justices routinely speak at Federalist Society gatherings, including the yearly fall meeting in Washington.
Thursday's black-tie dinner at a Washington hotel cost $175 a plate, or for $550 a participant could attend the dinner and three days of speeches and panel discussions featuring a host of federal judges, conservative and liberal legal scholars and leading Supreme Court lawyers.
Some critics have said the justices are crossing an ethical line when they allow their names to be used by the group to help sell tickets to the event. Alliance for Justice, a not-for-profit group that advocates for liberal court nominees, said Alito showed "insensitivity to the need for a justice's ethical behavior to be above reproach" by doing just that.
Ethics guidelines for federal judges other than Supreme Court justices say judges should steer clear of fundraising efforts and not allow the prestige of their office to be used to drum up ticket sales.
Federalist Society president and chief executive officer Eugene Meyer said the critics have their facts wrong.
"This annual event is not a fundraiser. We have not hoped to raise funds from it, and, in fact, we lose a little money on every meal we serve," Meyer said.