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EDITORIAL: Citizens united against censorship

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Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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The Supreme Court is hearing arguments today regarding Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The case could decide what political speech is prohibited by federal campaign finance laws. To put it simply, campaign finance laws constrain free speech. This showdown provides the high court with an opportunity to make clear that it's not the proper role of government to limit how much is being spent on campaigns or by whom.

The controversy of the day is over a film released during the 2008 presidential campaign. "Hillary The Movie" didn't expressly advocate that Hillary Rodham Clinton be defeated in her bid for the presidency, though most viewers would conclude that her failure was the desired outcome of its producers, Citizens United. The stakes are high. As David N. Bossie, president of Citizens United, explains on the facing page, "McCain-Feingold made it a felony offense punishable by up to five years in prison to broadcast our movie or advertising promoting sales of the movie during the 2008 election cycle solely because of their political content."

While defenders of campaign-finance laws argue that Mr. Bossie's documentary should count as a campaign expenditure, it's not obvious where the line would be drawn or what subject matter constitutes prohibited speech during a campaign. We shudder to think of government regulators having to approve what can and cannot be said at any given time in this country.

The Citizens United case demonstrates why campaign-finance laws can't limit overall campaign spending. Suppose government imposes strict limits on how much money candidates can spend on elections, and all third-party expenditures are banned. There would be no campaign ads, no issue ads, no independent efforts to register voters, and no independent studies released to try to influence public opinion. While making it harder for individual citizens to group together to express their opinions, these strict restrictions would not remove all third-party voices from the debate. George Soros could still buy a television station. General Electric would still own NBC, which could, at least in theory, allow it to support a favored candidate with positive news stories.

Once the bureaucracy is established in the censorship business, it eventually will address the issue of campaign books. It's not exactly a mystery why candidates come out with books around election time. The advertising and book tours for these works are all paid for by the publisher. But it's not only candidates who publish books at politically opportune times. Candidates' supporters also tend to write books. If "Hillary The Movie" is confirmed to be an unlawful campaign expenditure, the next step is for the government to decide whether books run afoul of campaign-finance laws.

Campaign-finance regulations don't promote fairness. They twist and distort the natural inclination of Americans who want to be involved in the political process. The line needs to be drawn in the sand, and we'd hope even the most ardent campaign-finance reformers would have problems with regulating all media. It's time for the Supreme Court to put an end to these intrusive rules.

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