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In our opinion: Supreme Court (correctly) rules that campaigns are speech, too

Published: Thursday, April 3 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court struck down another limitation on participation in the political process. The decision re-emphasizes this vital principle: The political process must be an open book.

Alex Brandon, File, Associated Press

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On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court struck down another limitation on participation in the political process. In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the court upheld an individual’s right to donate funds to as many candidates for political office as he or she would like — while still retaining limits on the amount an individual may donate to a single candidate.

Early reactions to the decision were divided over whether the ruling would have a larger or smaller practical impact than the Citizens United v. FECdecision from 2010. That ruling held that corporate entities enjoy the First Amendment right to make independent expenditures expressing political messages about candidates for office.

“The Supreme Court has once again reminded Congress that Americans have a constitutional First Amendment right to speak and associate with political candidates and parties of their choice,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, in a statement. “The Court did not strike down individual contribution limits to candidates, political action committees, or parties. But the Court did recognize that it is the right of the individual, and not the prerogative of Congress, to determine how many candidates and parties to support.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was also pleased, saying in a news release: “Today’s decision will help ensure the robust political participation and debate that our nation’s Founders envisioned.”

Disagreeing with that sentiment was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said in a Tweet, “Today's Supreme Court ruling gives even more power to the wealthiest few who are trying to buy our democracy, like the Koch Brothers,” a reference to the owners of Wichita, Kan.-based Koch Industries, who are known for their active support of free-market policies.

“Citizens United was one of the worst decisions in the history of the Court,” Reid said in another Tweet. “Today's ruling further drowns the voices of working Americans.”

Our system of constitutional government rests upon multiple checks and balances that divide power and keep opportunities for tyranny by a majority or a minority at bay.

The Constitution divides power among different branches of government (e.g. legislative versus executive), between federal government and state sovereigns, and between democratic decision-making and those rights enumerated in the Constitution. Among the most significant enumerated powers is the First Amendment’s bar on Congress infringing the freedom of speech — including politically unpopular political speech.

As Chief Justice John Roberts declared in his opinion, “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

On the court, the four justices appointed by Democratic presidents dissented from Wednesday’s ruling. They said it undercut a core aspect of campaign finance law, the aggregate limit on the amount that a wealthy individual could spend on all political campaigns. Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in the ruling but urged a wholesale elimination of campaign finance restrictions.

Wednesday’s decision re-emphasizes this vital principle: The political process must be an open book. Individuals should be as free as possible to speak about, or to contribute to, candidates of their choice — but should also be required to disclose their contributions.

“Reports and databases are available on the FEC’s Web site almost immediately after they are filed,” the court declared. “Because massive quantities of information can be accessed at the click of a mouse, disclosure is effective to a degree not possible” in previous decades.

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