In a new Mediaite column, ABC News legal analyst Dan Abrams—whose father is Floyd Abrams, the legendary First Amendment champion who helped make the case against the speech restrictions that the Supreme Court overturned two years ago in Citizens United v. FEC—objects to "the media's shameful, inexcusable distortion" of that decision. Abrams highlights two common misconceptions: 1) that Citizens United abolished disclosure requirements, when in fact it explicitly upheld them, and 2) that Citizens United let rich people spend unlimited amounts of their own money on political messages—a right they have always had, as recognized in the 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo. As an example of the second misstatement, he cites a New York Times story that I mentioned last month, along with similar glosses by Times columnist Gail Collins, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, and NBC analyst Michael Isikoff. Abrams, who says he thinks Citizens United should have been decided on narrower grounds and has argued with his father about the decision, is nevertheless indignant about persistent journalistic misrepresentations of what the Supreme Court said, and he marvels at the response to his father's participation in the case:
I have also been amazed at the vitriol directed at my civil libertarian dad from the left over his defense of a constitutional principle he firmly believes in. Defend a Nazi’s right to march? No problem. Defend the most repugnant members of our society’s right to speak? Absolutely. Defend a corporation’s right to engage in the political process? Inexcusable.
See my December 2010 Reason cover story for more on over-the-top reactions to Citizens United. Speaking of which, one of the journalists Abrams criticizes, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. (whose "screed against free speech" Ron Bailey noted on Monday), claims Citizens United "tore down a century's worth of law aimed at reducing the amount of corruption in our electoral system." One of the statutory provisions the Court overturned, McCain-Feingold's ban on "electioneering communications," was enacted in 2002, while the other, the ban on "express advocacy" by unions and corporations, has its roots in a 1947 law—still 37 years shy of a century before Citizens United. President Obama was even further from the truth when he claimed, in the part of his 2010 State of the Union address that made Justice Samuel Alito shake his head, that the Court had "reversed a century of law," apparently referring to the Court's own precedents. In fact, the decisions that Citizens United reversed, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and McConnell v. FEC, date from 1990 and 2003, respectively.