- The Washington Times - Friday, January 22, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Writing for the Supreme Court of the United States in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission yesterday, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted that campaign-finance laws required that “a speaker wishing to avoid criminal-liability threats and the heavy costs of defending against FEC enforcement must ask a governmental agency for prior permission to speak.”

Think about that for a moment: Citizen of the United States needed to seek permission from a government agency before speaking about a politician who ostensibly is a representative of the people. Not only that, but a citizen who spoke without government permission was at risk of a prison sentence.

In 2007, Citizens United Productions released a film entitled “Hillary The Movie.”Naturally, we wanted to advertise our film and distribute it to those who wished to see it via cable “on-demand.” In an unconscionable violation of our First Amendment rights, the government restricted us from doing so because the film and the advertisements that I produced referenced a candidate for federal office.

I was stunned by the government’s decision. I believe that, above every other category of speech, political speech must be the most protected. If our right to political speech can be denied by the government, how are we to hold our representatives to that government accountable for their actions? If we are not permitted to speak about our own government, can it truly be considered “our” government?

From Thomas Paine’s publication of “Common Sense” before the American Revolution, to the ratification debate featuring John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison memorialized in the Federalist Papers, to the editorial writers of today, advocacy of political causes through popular media is inextricably intertwined with the fabric of this country. It is no coincidence that in the Bill of Rights, the right to freedom of speech is both first and absolute.

Over the last hundred years, however, Congress and the courts have decided that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” does not mean what any citizen reading those words for the first time would reasonably think. For the last hundred years, progressively more restrictive laws have been passed encroaching on our right to free speech. Each time a new law is passed, it is done incrementally and under the guise of “good government” so as not to frighten us. But as soon as we have grown accustomed to the previous law, another is passed that takes away just a little more of our freedom.

This process came to a head last March, when the deputy solicitor general of the United States, representing the official position of the government in front of the nine justices of the Supreme Court, declared that the government had the constitutional authority to ban the publication of a book if Congress passed such a law. That comment crystallizes the dangers of a hundred years of campaign-finance “reform.” It is inconceivable that a learned man like the deputy solicitor general in such august company as the justices of the Supreme Court would have made that comment a hundred years ago. It is only because Congress and the courts have quietly stolen away small pieces of our First Amendment rights over the course of a century that such a position could be taken.

There can be honest disagreements about the role of money in politics. But I would hope that, whether Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, we can all agree that any attempt by the government to silence a citizen should be met with a stern rebuke. This is not an issue that is easily categorized as “conservative” or “liberal.” In our case, the ACLU joined with the NRA, and the AFL-CIO joined with the Chamber of Commerce in support of Citizens United and the First Amendment. We were fighting as much for the rights of filmmakers like Michael Moore as we were for our own right to produce, advertise and distribute films.

Thankfully, the Roberts Court has put the brakes on a slide down a very slippery and very dangerous slope. With yesterday’s ruling, so-called “reformers” have been put on notice that, as Justice Kennedy said in the opinion of the court, “when Congress finds that a problem exists, we must give that finding due deference; but Congress may not choose an unconstitutional remedy.”

David N. Bossie is president of Citizens United, a nationwide grass-roots organization dedicated to restoring the government to citizen control.

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