WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday ruled 5-4 to overturn restrictions on corporate and union campaign contributions, changing the landscape of political financing.
The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act forbids corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for an "electioneering communication" or for speech that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate.
Corporations could sill set up a political action committee, but PACs are subject to even more restrictions and disclosures.
The majority said "restrictions on such expenditures are invalid" while overruling an earlier high court precedent and part of another.
"Although the First Amendment provides that 'Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech,'" Justice Antony Kennedy wrote for the majority, the law's "prohibition on corporate independent expenditures is an outright ban on speech, backed by criminal sanctions. It is a ban notwithstanding the fact that a PAC created by a corporation can still speak, for a PAC is a separate association from the corporation. Because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy -- it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people -- political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it by design or inadvertence."
The court's four-member liberal bloc signed on to parts of the majority opinion, but not the core ruling on corporate contributions.
But only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented in part because the majority did not strike down the laws' requirements for disclosure of campaign donors. Disclosure exposes speakers, he said, and "I cannot endorse a view of the First Amendment that subjects citizens of this Nation to death threats, ruined careers, damaged or defaced property, or pre-emptive and threatening warning letters as the price for engaging in core political speech, the 'primary object of First Amendment protection.'"
The case involved an attack "documentary" called "Hillary: The Movie." The film's backers wanted to make it available as an "on demand" movie on cable television during the 2008 race for the presidency.
But federal courts ruled the movie, financed partly with funds from unnamed corporations, violated the 2002 McCain-Feingold law.