Commentary: Supreme Court's ruling will unleash political spending by companies, unions

The U.S. Supreme Court decision Thursday striking down restrictions on corporate spending in political campaigns was disappointing in its effect and astonishing in its reach.

It was discouraging because it undermines a fundamental underpinning of political campaign regulation that, in North Carolina, has its roots in the Depression. It was then that N.C. lawmakers attempted to keep the overpowering, potentially corruptive impact of large business and labor union contributions out of free state and local elections.

And it was stunning because it represented the Supreme Court majority's enthusiasm for judicial activism. It expanded a narrowly-focused case to the broader question of whether federal restrictions on corporate contributions in political campaigns were an unconstitutional breach of First Amendment guarantees of free speech. The case arose with a video an independent campaign group wanted to offer, on a download-on-demand basis, that was critical of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Was the group, Citizens United, subject to contribution limits?

The court ruled, in a 5-4 opinion by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, that limits on independent campaign spending by corporations violated their First Amendment rights. In essence the decision unleashes corporate and union spending to directly affect the outcome of future federal and state elections. In doing so, the court found that corporations have the same rights as do people, rather than more limited commercial speech rights that courts have recognized in the past.

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