By Peter J. Smith
WASHINGTON, D.C., June 26, 2007 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The Supreme Court loosened the muzzle placed over pro-life groups and other grassroots lobbyists by McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws yesterday, saying such groups had a constitutional right to name federal candidates up for election in broadcast ads.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Court overturned a key portion of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform laws that forced a broadcasting blackout on American citizens 30 days before a primary and 60 days before the federal elections by preventing them from naming candidates in ads.
Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL) sued the Federal Election Commission after the FEC said WRTL’s ads urging voters to contact Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) to express their dismay over the filibustering of judges violated the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) – also known as McCain-Feingold – because the Senator was up for re-election at the time.
The Supreme Court agreed with an earlier 3-judge panel that WRTL’s messages were “genuine issue ads” not intended to influence voter decisions, and as such the government could not prevent it from broadcasting. The Court did not go as far as to throw out BCRA’s ban on “express advocacy”, meaning that grassroots organizations still cannot urge citizens directly to vote for or against a candidate on television or radio.
Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas reiterated their support for jettisoning the First Amendment restrictions in McCain-Feingold entirely, but in writing for the majority Chief Justice Roberts said the cases “present no occasion to revisit McConnell.” Nevertheless “the Court should give the benefit of the doubt to speech, not censorship.”
For the dissent Justice Stevens rejected the majority’s opinion that “express advocacy” is defined as there being “no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.” Stevens said BCRA was meant to “remedy the problem of ‘so-called issue ads’ being used to advocate the election or defeat of clearly identified federal candidates.”
Justice Stevens, however, had far more concern for non-political free speech in the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case also decided yesterday. The Court ruled also 5-4 that the principal of an Alaskan high school had every right to discipline a student for displaying the offensive banner during the 2002 Olympic torch parade. In that dissent, Stevens argued against the principal’s authority to punish the student saying, “the First Amendment demands more, indeed, much more.”
Wisconsin Right to Life hailed its victory against the government’s restrictions as “a tremendous victory for citizens and citizen organizations.”
“The Court has now restored to the people the most effective means, broadcast ads, for efforts to influence incumbent politicians when they pass laws to tax and regulate us” said WRTL counsel James Bopp, jr.
“Incumbent politicians have no constitutional authority to squash criticism of their conduct in office. The American Revolution was fought and the First Amendment enacted, precisely to protect the people’s right to criticize the government. The Court today has rejected the audacious attempt of Senator McCain and his allies to overturn the First Amendment’s protection and empower incumbent politicians with the power to ban public criticism – even ban ads that contain no such criticism.”