Nothing funny about limits on political speech

Liberals tend to view last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC was the worst thing to happen to American democracy since Watergate. Hoping to prove that the ruling would allow “unlimited corporate money” to influence elections, Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert announced in March that he would form ColbertPAC, a political action committee. Thursday, almost three months later, the Federal Elections Commission narrowly granted him permission to do so. But that was far from the first obstacle to Colbert’s march to undo the evils of the moneyed class in politics.

The first roadblock to Colbert’s efforts to become a “political playa” in the 2012 election came when his lawyer, former Federal Elections Commission chairman Trevor Potter, told him that his on-air support of federal candidates might count as illegal corporate “in-kind” contributions from Comedy Central’s corporate parent Viacom to ColbertPAC.

Undaunted by this initial restriction on his speech, Colbert then announced he would form the “Colbert Super PAC.” Super PACs raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on independent ads, but cannot give money directly to candidates. That suited Colbert just fine. But Viacom’s lawyers informed him they still felt exposed to legal action since the FEC could count the production costs, airtime, and use of Viacom staff to produce the ads as corporate contributions. These contributions wouldn’t be illegal, but Viacom didn’t want to go through the headache of valuing each of Colbert’s ads and then reporting it to the FEC.

Still determined to exercise fully his First Amendment rights, Colbert applied to the FEC for a “media exemption” that would allow him to comment on politics the same way that corporate entities like the New York Times do. After considering his petition for almost 50 days, the FEC yesterday finally rendered its judgment and gave Colbert permission to form his Super PAC. Viacom still must report all administrative costs needed to operate Colbert’s PAC, and whatever ads Colbert produces are not allowed to run on other networks.

“Why does it get so complicated to do this? I mean, this is page after page of legalese,” Colbert told Potter on-air before filing for his media exemption. “All I’m trying to do is affect the 2012 election. It’s not like I’m trying to install iTunes.” But that is exactly what conservatives have been saying about our entire campaign finance regime since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976 approved federal limits on campaign contributions.

Contrary to campaign finance advocates, the First Amendment includes no exceptions for fighting the “appearance of corruption.” The text is simple: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Which part of “no law” don’t they get? Perhaps now Colbert will reconsider his previous enthusiasm for federal bureaucrats being empowered to regulate political speech.

editorialsOpinionStephen ColbertSupreme Court

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