CBS Frets Over Supreme Court's Turn to Right, ABC Rues Campaign Finance Ruling

The Supreme Court on Monday issued two rulings related to free speech, but CBS was more concerned by the court's move “to the right,” while ABC deplored the impact of the ruling striking down of a ban on advocacy advertising 60 days before an election. In the other case, the court upheld the right of school officials to ban student signs advocating illegal behavior. Substitute CBS Evening News anchor Harry Smith, however, saw only one of the cases as involving free speech as he stressed the ideological direction of the court: “Today the justices ruled on a broad range of issues, including campaign finance reform and free speech for students. The rulings illustrate a distinct turn to the right due in part to the court's newest members.” Instead of seeing a victory for free speech, Wyatt Andrews described it as “part of a trend in which the Roberts court generally has moved to the right.” Andrews soon touted how “often the court's only woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, would verbally strike back,” such as when “she said the partial-birth abortion decision reflects ancient notions about women's place in the family, and this was out loud in open court.”

Over on ABC, anchor Charles Gibson relayed how both of the big rulings “involved freedom of speech,” but only in the school case did ABC put “free speech” on screen. With “Campaign Ads” on screen, Gibson rued the triumph for free speech: “The court weakened a key provision of the campaign finance reform law, opening the way for many more groups to run many more political ads.” Gibson told Stephanopoulos that campaign spending “is out of control” and Stephanopoulos lamented how groups can now “run TV ads right up until election day praising candidates, criticizing candidates, as long as you don't use the words 'vote for' or 'vote against.' And it's very easy to get around that.”

The NBC Nightly News managed to frame both rulings as free speech cases without bemoaning the campaign decision. Brian Williams announced: “The U.S. Supreme Court took on free speech today. It issued two decisions in two cases. One of them will affect what we all see and hear during this coming election season. The other has to do with what school students can and cannot say. “ Pete Williams picked up on the majority's use of the “censor” term as he came the closest to painting the ruling as a victory for the cause of free speech:
“When it comes to free speech, the court said 'the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor.' The ruling said 'discussion of issues cannot be suppressed simply because they may also be pertinent in an election.' Today's decision was cheered by groups ranging from the National Rifle Association to the ACLU, whose ads faced blackouts before elections.....”
The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video to provide these transcripts of the June 25 broadcast network evening newscast coverage of the Supreme Court rulings announced Monday:

CBS Evening News:
HARRY SMITH: And in Washington today, a busy day at the Supreme Court. Today the justices ruled on a broad range of issues, including campaign finance reform and free speech for students. The rulings illustrate a distinct turn to the right due in part to the court's newest members -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. More now from Wyatt Andrews.

WYATT ANDREWS: You don't usually associate the Supreme Court with cases like "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." But after a high school student was suspended for displaying this banner, he brought a First Amendment case and lost. The court said that schools may restrict student speech that promotes drugs.

ANDREW COHEN, CBS News Legal Analyst: High school students just don't have the same sorts of constitutional rights that the rest of us do.

ANDREWS: The court today also struck down the ban on those last-minute campaign attack ads-

Clip of ad: And that's bad for Texas.

ANDREWS: -ruling here that the ban violates the First Amendment. Court analysts say this ruling -- which was strongly supported by conservatives -- is part of a trend in which the Roberts court generally has moved to the right.

TOM GOLDSTEIN, Attorney: Almost every significant case this term that divided on ideological lines was won by the conservatives.

ANDREWS: That's partly because the court's swing vote, Anthony Kennedy, has swung mostly conservative, notably by upholding the ban on partial-birth abortion.

GOLDSTEIN: From abortion to free speech, campaign finance regulation, he's consistently voted with the more conservative wing of the court.

ANDREWS: The Roberts court this term was also tough on people bringing lawsuits. The court, for example, said taxpayers may not sue the President to stop funding faith-based charities. Women may not sue for pay discrimination if they don't sue within 180 days. Investors can't sue Wall Street firms that might be fixing prices.

PAMELA KARLAN, Stanford Law School: It's a little hard to say they're decisively pro-business. I mean, they're certainly not pro-the little guy.

ANDREWS: Often the court's only woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, would verbally strike back. In that wage case, she complained "the court is indifferent to how women can be victims of wage discrimination." She said the partial-birth abortion decision reflects ancient notions about women's place in the family, and this was out loud in open court.

KARLAN: Which is an unusual thing for justices to do. Reflects a kind of anger at the direction in which the court is going.

ANDREWS: That direction toward a pro-business, anti-lawsuit and anti-abortion court is what the President was hoping for when he appointed Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. Wyatt Andrews, CBS News, at the Supreme Court.


ABC's World News with Charles Gibson:
CHARLES GIBSON, in opening teaser: The supreme showdown: The Supreme Court justices draw new lines on free speech in schools and in political ads. Get ready for an onslaught on the airwaves.

GIBSON (on screen: “Campaign Ads”): There were two important rulings from the Supreme Court today. Both involved freedom of speech. Both were 5-4 decisions. The first will impact the 2008 presidential campaign. The court weakened a key provision of the campaign finance reform law, opening the way for many more groups to run many more political ads. Our chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos is with me tonight. George, the Congress has struggled trying to find ways to limit campaign spending, which is out of control, and all these ads that are on television, without impinging on free speech. And today, in effect, the court, I guess, said you haven't done it.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That's exactly right, Charlie. The Congress tried to do it with a bill called McCain-Feingold, and this ruling blows a hole in the McCain-Feingold Act. What it says is that if you're a corporation, if you're a labor union, if you're an interest group like the Sierra Club or National Right to Life, you can run TV ads right up until election day praising candidates, criticizing candidates, as long as you don't use the words "vote for" or "vote against." And it's very easy to get around that.

GIBSON: So I suspect this means we're going to see even more ads in the 2008 presidential campaign than we could have anticipated already.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You won't be able to count it, Charlie. There was more than $2 billion spent in the 2006 campaign. I think that will more than double in 2008, and this is certainly going to increase the pressure -- it was already heading that way -- for the major party nominees to completely opt out of the public financing and spending limit system.

CHARLES GIBSON (on screen: “Free Speech”): And the other 5-4 decision today, the court tightened limits on free speech for students. It ruled that schools may prohibit student expression that can be interpreted as advocating drug use. Our legal affairs correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg is at the Supreme Court. So, Jan, it does seem incongruous that the Supreme Court is making a decision over a student's sign that says "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." Tell us about it.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the student said he was just trying to be funny when he unfurled that huge 14-foot banner that said "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," but the school principal thought he was advocating illegal drug use. That's why she ripped it down, and she suspended him. And the Court said that was entirely reasonable, that school officials can limit that kind of harmful speech that they think advocates illegal behavior. Schools act as parents, and they can protect children during the day.

GIBSON: Now, I would think most people would look at this as common sense, what the court decided today, and yet, it was a 5-4 decision. So there were four justices who disagreed with this.

GREENBURG: The more liberal justices said that decision was, that sign was just ridiculous, and that this would limit student speech in a number of areas, students should be able to talk about drug use -- maybe they want to change the drug laws. So they saw this ruling as limiting free speech in a very dangerous way.


NBC Nightly News:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: The U.S. Supreme Court took on free speech today. It issued two decisions in two cases. One of them will affect what we all see and hear during this coming election season. The other has to do with what school students can and cannot say. Walking us all through it tonight, our justice correspondent, Pete Williams.

PETE WILLIAMS: The court today said Alaska high school officials acted properly when the Olympic torch paraded through Juneau in 2002 after students on a street held up a sign that declared 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' -- a nonsensical phrase intended to test free speech right. The principal thought it referred to smoking marijuana and tore it down. Today the court ruled 5 to 4 that because of the government's interest in stopping drug abuse, schools can restrict student expression they believe promotes illegal drugs.

FRANCISCO NEGRON, NATIONAL SCHOOL BOARDS ASSOCIATION: We're thrilled with the decision because what the Supreme Court said is basically that educators don't have to worry about being second guessed.

PETE WILLIAMS: In another free speech decision today, the court loosened a ban on TV and radio ads that run during election campaigns. Hoping to limit the influence of big money, Congress voted in 2002 to block corporations and labor unions from buying issue ads mentioning candidates, even when they stop just short of calling for a candidate's defeat. Today's ruling said it can be hard to tell whether an ad is genuinely about issues or is an attack ad in disguise. But when it comes to free speech, the court said 'the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor.' The ruling said 'discussion of issues cannot be suppressed simply because they may also be pertinent in an election.' Today's decision was cheered by groups ranging from the National Rifle Association to the ACLU, whose ads faced blackouts before elections.....
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center