Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Stephen Colbert Lampoons the First Amendment

The Comedy Central host receives government approval to form a political action committee.

Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert took his vaudeville routine to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) Thursday morning. He emerged from the choreographed hearing with approval from the agency to form what’s called a super PAC, an entity that may raise and spend unlimited funds to blast or boost federal candidates.

Steve Dingledine, a 43-year-old Washington resident, arrived at 5:45 a.m. to catch a glimpse of the faux-newsman. Colbert is a “court jester par excellence,” Dingledine declared, but he said he also hopes that the comedian's shtick will shift public opinion. “The awareness is going to be raised to a point where the loophole cannot be exploited by media companies,” the Colbert groupie said.

What advocates of strict campaign finance regulation call a “loophole,” others call protected political speech under the First Amendment. In May, Colbert submitted an advisory opinion request through an attorney asking the FEC to sanction his political action committee.

The central question was whether Comedy Central’s corporate parent company, Viacom, had to report administrative assistance to the PAC and potential payments to air political ads on other television stations. FEC lawyers submitted three different drafts responding to Colbert, and the agency ultimately approved a compromise version allowing Colbert to claim the “press exemption” to campaign finance law. Viacom must therefore report PAC involvement not relating to the late-night program, including logistical support for the PAC and advertising placement on other networks.

Inside the packed hearing room, Colbert’s request didn’t sound like an effort to open a loophole for laughs. A subdued Colbert was nearly mute as his lawyer, Trevor Potter, blandly answered commissioners’ questions with only brief interjections from his client. After all the hype, Colbert’s appearance seemed anti-climatic, in contrast to his cheering fans waiting outside.

By 9:30 a.m., more than 30 of those fans were standing in line, along with a few campaign finance lawyers and Capitol Hill staffers. Six “coordinators” clad in red t-shirts reading “COLBERT SUPER PAC” arrived with signs to energize the crowd. Four Department of Homeland Security officers, who were there to provide security, told the redshirts that no “signs or protests were allowed” in the FEC hearing room. The redshirts assured the police that they planned to remain on the sidewalk’s de facto free speech zone.

Back inside, only one of the six commissioners broke with his colleagues to question the wisdom of the two-tiered set of rules for media corporations and other companies. Don McGahn, an iconoclastic Republican, challenged the authority of the commission to decide who gets a government-approved press license in an age of creative destruction in the media industry.

The FEC has grappled with the definition of the press for decades. In 1980, the FEC investigated Reader’s Digest for making an “illegal corporate expenditure to negatively influence” the 1980 presidential election after the magazine distributed a video reenactment of the Chappaquiddick car wreck involving then-candidate Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). After a long investigation, the case was dismissed in 1981.

Almost 20 years later, the FEC granted a media exemption to the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, which meant the Republican-leaning group no longer had to disclose its spending on certain production expenses. Citizens United was the plaintiff in the blockbuster 2010 Supreme Court case holding that the government may not restrict the independent speech of companies and advocacy groups. If Citizens United need not disclose its spending on documentaries and certain ads as a press entity, why should Viacom and Colbert have to?

“Commentary is a slippery concept, and I’m having trouble being the one who decides what is commentary and what is not commentary. We’re in an interesting era now, post-Citizens United,” McGahn said, citing bloggers and other non-traditional journalists. McGahn also rejected the notion that corporations gained First Amendment rights in Citizens United, arguing that media corporations have long enjoyed the unfettered ability to engage in political advocacy through editorial boards and TV talking heads.

Campaign finance lawyers have speculated that the FEC’s advisory opinion may spur FOX News or Current TV, an Al Gore-owned network featuring former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, to engage in politics through the super PAC model. McGahn registered his objections by voting unanimously with his colleagues to approve one version of the advisory opinion but withholding his vote from the final version that the FEC officially approved.

Colbert mingled with FEC commissioners and staff in a conference room during a brief recess after the vote. An agency lawyer, who chatted with Colbert in the men’s restroom, asked the comedian about the mass of people waiting for him outside the building. “There are a lot of crazy people out there,” he replied. Colbert emerged from the building just before 11 a.m. to address a throng of 150 or so of those crazies, plus gawking journalists and “federal employees with extremely generous lunch break policies,” as he put it.

“Hello freedom lovers! I am here to represent your voice, so please quiet down so we can all hear what you have to say with my mouth,” he said during the three-minute press conference. “There will be [those] that say, ‘Stephen Colbert, what will you do with that unrestricted Super PAC money?’ To which I say, ‘I don’t know. Give it to me and let’s find out.’”

Colbert finished with a fundraising pitch to prime the pump of his super PAC.

“I don’t know about you, but I do not accept limits on my free speech!” said Colbert, who was chauffeured by an ethanol-guzzling Cadillac. “I do not accept the status quo! I do accept Visa, MasterCard, and American Express—$50 or less please, because then I don’t have to keep a record of who gave it to me.”

Jeff Patch is a writer and political consultant based in Alexandria, Virginia.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    He is ably illustrating how campaign finance laws limit the ability of individuals to form groups in order to foster political speech since he had to hire an army of lawyers to navigate the labrinthine regulations. Wait what, that's not his intent?

  • Mnemone Jones||

    Has he stated his intent (out-of-character, of course), or is everyone just sort of assuming?

  • ||

    I am just making unfounded assumptions. That's ok here right?

  • ||

    Only if you pay the toll. j/k

  • ||

    on his show he has many times made fun of people who are against campaign finance law. So yeah, his position is that it's perfectly ok to have to hire high priced lawyers to apply for permission to speak freely. Which I find pretty shocking coming from someone in entertainment.

  • ||

    Which I find pretty shocking coming from someone in entertainment.

    You misunderstand - his and only his ability to speak freely is just fine with him.

  • ||

    Imagine a world without campaign finance laws! Ordinary people would be repeatedly subjected to whole blocks of expensive TV time filled with lengthy political diatribes!

    The Colbert Report surely wouldn't stand for that.

  • ||

    Wait, I live in New York City and have a multi-million dollar salary. The ability to hire an army of lawyers on your behalf is now commonplace in American, right?

  • ||

    You got that right buddy.

  • ||

    All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

  • ||

    Liberals aren't allowed to succeed.

  • ||

    The government never had a problem with him forming a PAC, it was Viacom that didn't want him to do it. That's why he was asking for a press exemption.

  • ||

    This is getting interesting.

  • ||

    Is this the third or fourth Colbert story today?

    Not that he isn't important!

  • ||

    Is it okay for me to come back now?

  • ||

    For foh-hunnered yays, dat werd has kept us down.

  • Shannon Love||

    I wonder how long it will be before the FEC decides that the shows of Colbert and John Stewart comprise a multi-million dollars donation in kind to the Democrats by Viacom?

  • ||

    I'm betting on The Twelfth of Never

  • ||

    Nah, March 31st....what, that's a real day? Crap.

  • Mnemone Jones||

    I'm betting the same as Almanian, not least because then they'd have to do the same to Fox re: the GOP.

    Nah, that's a false equivalency. Fox News has its head shoved so far up the GOP's ass it would be difficult to find it to serve with FEC papers. Compared to that the occasional liberal head-fake that CC makes is almost quaint.

  • Paul||

    Like Obama's liberal head-fake that liberals haven't recovered from?

  • ||

    "Compared to that the occasional liberal head-fake that CC makes is almost quaint."

    Yeah, boy is that Fox News BIASED!! Grrrr... Good thing that NBC, CBS, ABC, MSNBC, CNN, PBS, Newsweek, TIME, the New York Times, the LA Times, The Washington Post are all independent clarions of truth and not sucking the dick of the democrats and don't comprise the mass of the so-called MSM. Yeah, FOX News and the WSJ are the problem. God, what a douche you are....

  • ||

    "Campaign finance lawyers have speculated that the FEC’s advisory opinion may spur FOX News or Current TV, an Al Gore-owned network featuring former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, to engage in politics through the super PAC model"

    Because obviously they are not engaging in politics now....
    What is astounding is that practically every newspaper in American has this thing called the "editorial page" where they advocate for candidates and polices...So how would a super pac be different?
    What is the profound difference between written advocacy and advocacy on TV (of course, everybody who watches TV immdiately obeys all commands from the glowing box - I know, I am millions of dollars in debt from ordering ShamWows - but my house is sparking and dry!!!)
    The problem to me is that everybody gets constrained except the "press."
    Define the press?
    What criteria makes up the definition of the press?
    Why exactly does the press get to advocate freely but not fresno dan?

    Uh, I know the press is completely without any financial interests (COUGH Washington Post and its for Profit Kaplan 'university' funded by the gubermint COUGH COUGH Hacks lung out) but as various newspapers disagree, who arbitrates that the newspaper is advocating policies that are completely altruistic and objective? I mean, thats why the press gets it exemption from all the FEC rigamarole, right????

  • ||

    how Interesting that we right-of-center types possess the fortitude to resist the tsunami multitudes of twisted illogic that is the LSM TV, yet the libtards scream like metrosexual beotches with the presence of a single right-of-center network! While they carry the moral and ethical equity of ted kennedy Ha! Ha! Ha! Keep screamin' wenches!!!

  • ||

    That's why Colbert was asking for a press exemption.

  • Spencer||

    Now if only he can get them to let Doritos sponsor his campaign...

  • ||

    Steve Dingledine here. Not an actual Colbert "groupie", but had the time to come and enjoy the show today at the FEC. The absurdity of our electoral system needs to be outer and who better than Colbert?

  • ||

    He's done a great job so far, though not the way he intended, I think.

  • ||

    Methinks his "fans" might not be able to discern that fact.

  • Jeff Patch||

    Hey Steve. "Groupie" was not meant as an insult. I think it's a fair description for a fan who attended the 'Fear' rally in Sept. 2010 and showed up at the ass-crack of dawn to see Colbert at a government agency. FWIW, I'm a Colbert groupie as well...

  • ||

    Oh, you may be right. There's worse things to be
    : ). Pretty good day, all-n-all. Good to meet you and best of luck.

  • ||

    “The awareness is going to be raised to a point where the loophole cannot be exploited by media companies,” the Colbert groupie said.

    Or, Steve will taste the sweet teat of power that comes with politicians begging him for money and be thoroughly corrupted.

  • ||

    Colbert as Kingmaker?

  • ||

    Stranger things have happened.

  • ||

    Al Franken as Senator?

  • ||

    Fuck the FEC, the SEC, the FTC, and the STB. The DEA, NEA, and ATF, too.

  • ||

    Yo, Fuck the Alphabet.

  • Mnemone Jones||

    No, not the alphabet! Some of those letters have sharp angles!

  • ||

    Zed is rather kinky...

  • ||

    Zed's dead.

  • ||

    Zed is an exterminator.

  • ||

    Fuck a Q, it's got a built in tickler!

  • ||

    After all the hype, Colbert’s appearance seemed anti-climatic, in contrast to his cheering fans waiting outside.

    The climate must have been better outside.

  • ||

    Thank you, global cooling/warming/stasis!

  • ||

    How is Colbert lampooning the First Amendment? It seems he is lampooning election laws that limit an individual "free speech" candidate contribution to $2300 but not a corporation.

  • ||

    Are you one of those people who thinks that his "Steven Colbert" character is really making fun of liberals?

    Because if so, you don't "get" it.

  • ||

    Hey! Welcome back, The DerpHURRDURRHURR™!

    God, you're an idiot! That's all - have a nice day!

  • ||

    You had to post this stupid shit twice?

  • ||

    PWN'D!

  • ||

    I lost interest in Colbert when he said he does not want his children to see his work.

    Sorry, but if the man is so ashamed of his vocation that he does not want his children to know the details, I'm not interested.

    Here in my firefox window Colbert is not underlined in red, while firefox, Barack and Obama are.

    Gotta love it!

  • ||

    Parents have the right to determine the media consumption of their children, unless you don't like the choices that parent makes.

    Did I get that right?

  • ||

    Point out to me the part of my comment where I wanted to impose my views on others.

  • ||

    Point out to me the part of my comment where I asserted you wanted to impose your view on others.

  • ||

    unless you don't like the choices that parent makes

    Keep it up, idiot! FUCK, you're bringing teh stoopid hard tonight, The Dumbshit™!

  • ||

    Where did I say that you want to impose your view on others again?

    Eat a bag of dicks.

  • ||

    Honey, I think what they're trying to say is that when you asserted that the commenter in question believes in parental rights unless he disagrees with the parent's choices, you were implying that he advocates the use of force to block the rights of Stephen Colbert, et al, as parents. After all, dear, the only way rights can become systemically denied is through legislation. By the way, I threw away the Led Zeppelin t-shirt you left in your laundry basket. No more devil's music for you.

  • ||

    If the only way rights can be systematically denied is legislation, why aren't property rights defended in Somalia?

    You fucking retard.

  • Paul||

    If the only way rights can be systematically denied is legislation, why aren't property rights defended in Somalia

    Because Somalia has very liberal eminent domain laws.

  • ||

    A gang of thugs burning down your farm is not a government problem, its a lack of government problem.

  • ||

    A gang of thugs burning down your farm is not a government problem, its a lack of government problem.

    The problem is that property rights aren't respected there.

  • ||

    SOMALIA! Drink! Oh, and

    PWN'D!

  • ||

    I didn't say that "somalia is libertopia", I said "somalia is fucked up because they don't defend property rights".

    You're a moron. Drink.

  • ||

    Property rights in Somalia are much more secure than they are in Zimbabwe.

  • ||

    Are you against all pornographers who don't show their work to their young children, as well?

  • ||

    I have no interest in porno, nor so I have any interest in showing it to my child.

    What others do is their own business.

  • ||

    Unless you don't like what they do with their children, in which case it causes you to stop liking their art.

    You're a clown.

  • ||

    Got your Clown Porn Here! Come get your Clown PorN!

    Sweet shit people. Reading this make me wonder if there really is some clown porn filmed at some pre-school were all the kids are napping on their pieces of carpet while Bozo's bozo is popping Pogo's proclivities. Pogo killed Bozo seeing how Pogo was Gacy. And Homey, I mean Pogo don't play dat.

  • ||

    Rule 34, my friend...

  • ||

    Because you have to capitalize Firefox lol.

  • ||

    Firefox.... you're right!

  • ||

    He is not ashamed of his vocation. He simply did not want his kids to perceive him as a conservative asshole.

  • Paul||

    How fair is that? Now they only get to know the liberal one.

  • ||

    His kids are like 2 and 4 years old.

  • ||

    Boy, it's a perfect day - The Dromendary™ is back with his moronics, I'm on vacation tomorrow. the pharma's are just kicking in...

    Perfect! Entertain us some more, The Derider™! Your special brand of idiocy is more-entertaining that most.

  • ||

    I'm waiting for one of you morons to actually make an argument. Keep avoiding me like a pussy, and I'll be here forever.

  • ||

    We lived with joe boyle for years. You don't have the talent or the stamina to compete with joe.

  • ||

    At least you're sane enough to not assert that I AM joe boyle.

  • ||

    Quiet down joe.

  • ||

    Nuh-uh! You quite down!

  • ||

    "Sorry, but if the man is so ashamed of his vocation that he does not want his children to know the details, I'm not interested."

    Really?

  • Douglas Fletcher||

    Maybe he doesn't want his kids to know what a lame-o comedian he is.

  • ||

    Yeah you could teach him a thing or two!

  • ||

    the derider is being derisive

  • cheajordan||

    greatest as you
    smallest as me
    you show me what is deep as sea

  • ||

    “I do not accept the status quo! I do accept Visa, MasterCard, and American Express—$50 or less please, because then I don’t have to keep a record of who gave it to me.”

    BTW, What is the time limit on the 50$ - a year I imagine. But how do the FEC know I am not sending Cobert 50$ every week???? Must be some record keeping going on...Could I send 25$ and than 364 days later 26$ just to screw Cobert up as far as campaing donations go???

    But say I could give ShamWow or Cobert 50 billion dollars - could he/ShamWow win a presidential election with that much money? Because if he/ShamWow could, it says more about the inability of 'citizens' to evaluate their potential leaders than it does about the utility of campaign finance laws.
    Or phrased another way, if the majority of the citizens will vote for ShamWow...uh, I mean Cobert for president based only on pretty girls in the living room glowing box telling them too...well, maybe this democracy thing isn't all its cracked up to be. But if the total amount that could be spent was 50$ for a campaign, wouldn't there be tremendous incentive to get ShamWow...er, I mean Cobert on the glowing box, by ANT MEANS NECESSARY, to get the boobs in front of the tubes to vote ShamWow...uh, Cobert?

    I can remember before there was campaign finance laws, and the condidates were univerally crappy. Now, with campaing finance laws, they're specrapular!

  • ||

    winrar

  • ||

    Ok, I've sort of been paying attention to this story. I don't watch TV but I've read a few articles about this including the above and all the comments and I still don't get "it." I understand that Stephen Colbert has created this faux republican character that hosts a comedy show, but how is his super pac having to go before the FEC a jab at Republicans? Can someone explain why my liberal friends were horrified by Citizens United but think this super pac thing is so funny? I avidly avoid any and all political discussions with them so I can continue to remain friends with them so I can't ask a liberal. What am I missing? Doesn't his super pac stunt just show the absurdity of having these sort limits on political speech? I guess my question is, what is the liberal talking point here?

  • ||

    That was a bit long-winded, and I've got other things going on in life, but:

    Although it was not ushered in by the internet, now that the internet age is well upon us, EVERYBODY is the press.

    Campaign finance "reform" is disgusting, unconstitutional, and representative of why I can't stand career politicians or the life-long party hacks who work with them.

  • Shox||

    life-long party hacks who work with them.

  • ivy||

    Maybe he doesn't want his kids to know what a lame-o comedian he is.Here are some tips shared by http://www.goodluckbuy.com/ one of the worldwide B2C top sellers in selling the coolest gadgets with light-speed service and wholesale prices to all geeks/non-geeks around the planet. Appears to be coming directly from the Hong Kong suppliers with FREE SHIPPING!
    Goodluckbuy: Perfect Shop For Electronic Gadgets

  • nike shoes UK||

    is good

  • nike shoes online sale||

    is good

  • Gucci clothes||

    Exactly why you might ask, well you may want to sell a product or service and target webmasters or simply just improve the quantity of backlinks your web site has which will improve your Google rankins which will then bring your web site more traffic and cash.

  • canada goose dame jakke||

    This blog from my point of view is such an exciting and interesting to read as it is full of information, very nice to read.

  • Candly||

    Thank you for sharing! buyincoins, where you can buy good products from China directly without any shipping fee.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online