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January 22, 2010

Supreme Court in the right

By Spear's

I have no problem with incendiary films on either side of a debate. I often watch things I don’t agree with.

Bring it on, I say. 

All this hysteria over today’s Supreme Court decision that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections is unwarranted. Far from being the end of democracy, we’re finally getting it on the right track.

Today’s 5-to-4 decision defending the First Amendment’s premise that the government has no business regulating political speech had a very inauspicious start: a 90-minute documentary called “Hillary: The Movie,” which was produced by a right-wing group called Citizens United and was released during the presidential primaries in 2008. 

A caustic mix of political commentary and advocacy journalism, a lower court had ruled that it served no other purpose than “to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world and that viewers should vote against her.” This placed the film in clear violation of a law narrowed by a 2007 Supreme Court decision that applies to communications “susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.” 

Citizens United had sued the Federal Election Commission (FEC) when the latter scuttled their plans to show the film on a video-on-demand service and to broadcast television advertisements for it. Regardless, the film was shown in theaters in six cities and remains available on DVD and the Internet. Today the Supreme Court overturned previous decisions against Citizens United and handed the final defeat to the FEC.

Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, called today’s ruling “a terrible mistake.” “Ignoring important principles of judicial restraint and respect for precedent,” he said, “the Court has given corporate money a breathtaking new role in federal elections.” 

So what? I say. What? Did we think corporations were sitting idly by not peddling their influence in Washington until today? On the contrary, I think the corporations should broadcast their views and peddle their influence in a way all Americans can see and appreciate. In fact, my recommendation to all Americans would be: Let’s watch… and discuss.

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John Stuart Mill understood that a properly functioning liberal democracy is based on conversability: the idea that a democracy is composed of rational beings able to be moved by reason and argumentation and able to engage each other’s point of view and consider each other’s interests to come to a palatable solution for the whole. That’s why it’s important that political speech take place in public: so it can persuade the political public.

I have no problem with incendiary films on either side of a debate. I often watch things I don’t agree with — though W did make me want to hurl things at my TV in a way I’d never felt before, admittedly. It is key though that the producers declare who they are, so we can assess their bias for ourselves, as is indeed provided by federal law as supported by the Supreme Court in both 2007’s and today’s decisions.

But I do have a problem with lobbyists and secretive campaign donations. In Third World countries like the one I come from (Venezuela), we call that corruption — not ‘freedom of speech.’ 

So bring on the incendiary films and documentaries, I say, and fire the lobbyists. After all, it’s high time we bring a bit of Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer to American politics: let’s let it all hang out and see where we stand.

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