Free Speech for Everyone and Everything

Newt gets an easy $5 million and the First Amendment cringes 

In early May 2011, Stephen Colbert established a political action committee called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, better known as Colbert Super PAC, which allows the comedian to raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, institutions and individuals. Colbert has stated that the money would be raised not just for political ads, but also “administrative expenses, including but not limited to, luxury hotel stays, private jet travel, and PAC mementos from Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.”

Colbert’s most recent political project (he attempted to get his name on the ballot in the 2008 South Carolina Democratic primary) is, more than anything, a playful yet charged response to the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which in common parlance, declared corporations to be people. More specifically, it stated that the government may not prohibit unions and corporations from making independent expenditures about politics based on the First Amendment right to free speech.

The type of speech in question here is referred to as independent expenditure, meaning that a candidate is not permitted to coordinate in any way with those doing the speaking. Candidates can, however, increasingly rely on wealthy donors, who have been emboldened by the new precedent. Late last week, Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino owner, made a $5 million contribution to Winning Our Future, a Super PAC that supports Republican candidate Newt Gingrich for president. Adelson’s contribution is 1,000 times the legal limit of what he would have been able to contribute to Mr. Gingrich’s official campaign.

Proponents of transparency would argue that at least we know about the contribution and its source. Not quite, and once again, it was comedian Stephen Colbert that captured, and exploited, the ridiculousness of the law’s current interpretation. In September 2011, Colbert and his lawyer, who happens to be the former Commissioner and Chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, set up a 501(c)(4) – a civic organization with the same right to speak (spend money) as a person, but do so anonymously – or as Colbert prefers to call it, a “campaign finance glory hole”.

We now know of one rich man’s $5 million contribution to help his long-time friend become President. Imagine how much money is being thrown at the elections that we do not, and will not, know about.

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