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Supreme Court opens up 2010 elections in major free speech ruling



CARSON CITY – Like it or not, the 2010 campaign season is likely to dominate the airwaves more than ever nationally and in Nevada following a decision today by the U.S. Supreme Court repealing a limitation on political spending by corporations.

In what is being hailed by supporters as a major First Amendment free speech ruling, the 5-4 decision will allow corporations and labor unions to spend freely on behalf of political candidates and on political issues. The ruling overturned a key section of the McCain-Feingold Act.

Janine Hansen, executive director of the Independent American Party of Nevada and a lobbyist in Carson City for the party and the Nevada Eagle Forum, welcomed the ruling as a victory for free speech and challengers to the political establishment.

“The more campaign finance laws we have had enacted, the fewer successes challengers and non-incumbents have had,” she said. “Anything we can do to restore free speech is very important.

“These laws are why we have a government that is unresponsive to the will of the people,” Hansen said.

Lee Rowland, northern coordinator for the ACLU of Nevada, also welcomed the ruling, saying the ACLU had filed a “friend of the court” brief with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the section of the law repealed in today’s decision.

The case involved a type of speech, called an “electioneering communication” as opposed to limits on the expenditure of money in political races, and was clearly a violation of the First Amendment, she said.

“We are dealing with core political speech,” Rowland said. “It was a very black and white issue to us.”

Rowland said it is too early to know what effect the ruling may have on Nevada’s state campaign finance laws. But the ACLU of Nevada spoke out against a bill in the 2009 session of the Legislature that would have established similar restrictions that Rowland said were also unconstitutional. The changes did not win approval.

“This is precisely the type of core political speech the First Amendment is designed to protect,” she said.

The case arose when a Washington, DC-based conservative nonprofit group called Citizens United, sought to run advertisements for a film called Hillary: The Movie, right before the Democratic presidential primaries in 2008. The ads were rejected by the Federal Election Commission citing limitations on campaign spending under the McCain-Feingold Act.

A lower court found the film’s purpose was political speech, while Citizens United argued the film was nonpartisan and not an electioneering communication.

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned the lower court ruling in favor of Citizens United.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the majority opinion, said: “Some members of the public might consider Hillary to be insightful and instructive; some might find it to be neither high art nor a fair discussion on how to set the Nation’s course; still others simply might suspend judgment on these points but decide to think more about issues and candidates. Those choices and assessments, however, are not for the Government to make.”

David Bossie, president of Citizens United, called the decision a “complete victory” for the group.

“This is a monumental day for Citizens United,” he said. “So we have been waiting a long time for this day.”

Critics of the decision who are saying it will “shake the core” of our Democracy are guilty of “tremendous hyperbole,” Bossie said. Corporations aren’t all the size of the Exxon Mobile Corp. Some corporations are run by lone individuals, he said.

Not everyone welcomed the ruling. Nationally, two leading national campaign finance reform organizations, Common Cause and Public Campaign, criticized the decision, saying it will “enhance the ability of the deepest-pocketed special interests to influence elections and the U.S. Congress.”

“This decision means more business as usual in Washington, stomping on voters’ hope for change,” said Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign. “Congress must take on the insider Washington money culture if it wants to make the changes voters are demanding.”

Washington, DC, based attorney Tom Josefiak, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission that was the target in the Citizens United case, called the decision a landmark day for the First Amendment and free speech.

“In issuing its sweeping Citizens United opinion today, the Supreme Court reversed decades of its own precedent prohibiting corporate independent expenditures and recognized once and for all that the First Amendment right of free speech applies to everyone, including corporations,” he said.

Josefiak, who also formerly served as chief counsel for the Republican National Committee, said the ruling allows corporations to spend their funds on political issues as long as they do so independently.

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