Granted, Jane Mayer had only 7,200 words to work with in her latest New Yorker feature about how Citizens United has imperiled democracy. But is this the best an acclaimed reporter can do with the legitimate First Amendment objections to regulating political speech?
Conservatives cast their opposition to campaign-finance restrictions as a defense of free speech, but one of the cause's biggest champions, Senator McConnell, occasionally revealed a partisan motive. McConnell once opened a college seminar by writing on the blackboard the three ingredients that he felt were necessary to build a political party: "Money, money, and money." In a Senate debate on proposed campaign-finance restrictions, McConnell reportedly told colleagues, "If we stop this thing, we can control the institution for the next twenty years." In the end, McConnell decided to wage his battle through the courts. He and a conservative lawyer, James Bopp, Jr., founded the James Madison Center for Free Speech, which mounted a legal challenge on behalf of Citizens United—yet another outside spending group created by McCarthy’s partner on the Willie Horton ad, Floyd Brown.
The case reached the Supreme Court, and its ruling, issued in January, 2010, rolled back a century of legislation limiting corporate money in federal elections. Citizens United argued, successfully, that political spending was a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. In the past, the Court had balanced the free-speech argument against the need to protect American democracy from corruption. In Citizens United, a 5–4 decision, the Court essentially ruled that elections wouldn't be corrupted by independent expenditures made by outside groups. They could spend all the money they wanted, as long as the contributions weren't made directly to the candidates' campaigns.
Here's me in July 2010 on the faulty concept of "balancing" the First Amendment against other concerns.
Having once (shamefully!) held Mayer's precise position–free speech objections to campaign finance regulation are specious because screw that Mitch McConnell!–I'll reiterate my recommendation (which occasionally works!) to those who are still in that camp:
Check out the free-speech objections by people who don't want Goldman Sachs to take over the West Wing, or Wal-Mart to bulldoze private residences. I'm talking about anti-corporatist crusaders like Tim Carney, anti-eminent domain-abuse litigators like the Institute of Justice, or even former Federal Elections Commission chief Brad Smith.
And for those many who claim to be First Amendment absolutists while also supporting McCain-Feingold--I'm looking at you, some of my fellow journalists--here's a question that the former begs of the latter: What if you're wrong?
Presuming of course that being wrong about an important topic is actively embarrassing to journalists.