NY Times Dismisses First Amendment Victory at Supreme Court, Sees 'Strike at Heart of Democracy'

As the nation's leading newspaper and a beneficiary of the American tradition of free expression, the New York Times would of course celebrate a First Amendment victory at the Supreme Court, right? Well, not exactly. Friday's lead slot was dominated by the Supreme Court's expected but still momentous decision rejecting limits on corporate campaign spending in elections.But the subhead to Adam Liptak's story, "Justices, 5-4, Reject Corporate Campaign Spending Limit," ignored the victory for free speech in favor of dour liberal fears: "Dissenters Argue That Ruling Will Corrupt Democracy."

Overruling two important precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, a bitterly divided Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.The 5-to-4 decision was a vindication, the majority said, of the First Amendment's most basic free speech principle -- that the government has no business regulating political speech. The dissenters said that allowing corporate money to flood the political marketplace would corrupt democracy.

Most of the paper's coverage was reflected through the prism of the dissenters' point of view, with the decision seen not as a victory for free speech but as a "corrupting of democracy." The paper's large lead editorial made the same point, as the Times used its free speech to come out in favor of restricting the free speech of others:

President Obama called it "a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans."The justices in the majority brushed aside warnings about what might follow from their ruling in favor of a formal but fervent embrace of a broad interpretation of free speech rights."If the First Amendment has any force," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, which included the four members of the court's conservative wing, "it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech."

David Kirkpatrick's accompanying front-page piece had the same scary flavor. The headline especially captured the potential dark side of the ruling on campaign spending, as envisioned by good-government liberals (and the journalistic organs who fall in line behind them, free speech be darned): "Lobbies' New Power: Cross Us, And Our Cash Will Bury You."

The Supreme Court has handed a new weapon to lobbyists. If you vote wrong, a lobbyist can now tell any elected official that my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election."We have got a million we can spend advertising for you or against you -- whichever one you want,' " a lobbyist can tell lawmakers, said Lawrence M. Noble, a lawyer at Skadden Arps in Washington and former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission.The decision seeks to let voters choose for themselves among a multitude of voices and ideas when they go to the polls, but it will also increase the power of organized interest groups at the expense of candidates and political parties.

Kirkpatrick shuddered in the face of the upcoming tidal swell of, well, democracy:

It is expected to unleash a torrent of attack advertisements from outside groups aiming to sway voters, without any candidate having to take the criticism for dirty campaigning. The biggest beneficiaries might be well-placed incumbents whose favor companies and interests groups are eager to court. It could also have a big impact on state and local governments, where a few million dollars can have more influence on elections.

The ruling comes at a time when influence-seekers of all kinds have special incentives to open their wallets. Amid the economic crisis, the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats are trying to rewrite the rules for broad swaths of the economy, from Detroit to Wall Street. Republicans, meanwhile, see a chance for major gains in November.

Not to be outdone, Friday's lead editorial didn't mince words about the Supreme Court's "disastrous" ruling expanding free speech in political campaigns: "The Court's Blow to Democracy." The editorial magnified the dour tone of the paper's news stories, saying the decision "strikes at the heart of democracy" and claiming that the free speech argument was disingenuous.Apparently only liberal newspapers can be trusted to make their political opinions known without restrictions on speech.

With a single, disastrous 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court's conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.

Congress must act immediately to limit the damage of this radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy.

As a result of Thursday's ruling, corporations have been unleashed from the longstanding ban against their spending directly on political campaigns and will be free to spend as much money as they want to elect and defeat candidates. If a member of Congress tries to stand up to a wealthy special interest, its lobbyists can credibly threaten: We'll spend whatever it takes to defeat you.

The editorial advanced a popular left-wing argument:

The majority is deeply wrong on the law. Most wrongheaded of all is its insistence that corporations are just like people and entitled to the same First Amendment rights. It is an odd claim since companies are creations of the state that exist to make money. They are given special privileges, including different tax rates, to do just that. It was a fundamental misreading of the Constitution to say that these artificial legal constructs have the same right to spend money on politics as ordinary Americans have to speak out in support of a candidate.

But that argument rings hollow, given that the Times supports limits on how much those "ordinary Americans" can donate to campaigns as well.Note: This post compiles excerpts from three longer items. For a complete rundown of how the Times covered the Supreme Court decision, go to Times Watch.

Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.