By guest blogger LAURENCE H. WINER, Professor of Law and Faculty Fellow, Center for Law, Science & Technology, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz.

“[W]e don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of [government] bureaucrats.”  What an extraordinary statement for the Chief Justice of the United States to make when one considers the Supreme Court’s long history of allowing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) content-based regulation of broadcasting and other electronic media!

Chief Justice Roberts made this statement in last week’s oral argument of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  Citizens United, involving “Hillary: The Movie,” is the little case that could – could just restore a strong measure of freedom of speech in the most critical of all contexts, namely political speech.

As described in an earlier post occasioned by the first round of oral argument in this case last spring, the narrow issue is the provision of the McCain-Feingold “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002” (BCRA) that bans the use of corporate funds for “electioneering communications” via broadcast, cable, or satellite close to an election.  In the earlier argument some members of the Court were astounded by the government’s contention that Congress also would have the constitutional power to similarly ban printed material, including books.
    
This apparently led those members of the Court who long have been troubled by limitations on political speech imposed in the guise of campaign finance reform to set re-briefing and rearguing for an unusual and extended one-day September session.  And, the Court broadened the issue for rehearing by asking the parties to discuss whether the Court should overrule not only that part of its 2003 opinion in McConnell v. F.E.C. upholding the specific BCRA provision, but also the Court’s 1990 opinion in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.  In Austin, over strong dissents, the Court upheld a state’s restrictions on independent expenditures from general corporate funds for ads supporting or opposing a candidate for state elective office.

Not surprisingly, the Court’s actions with respect to Citizens United prompted more than 40 amicus briefs with what the New York Times called “an array of strange bedfellows and uneasy alliances” and set the stage for high drama.  How far will the Court go in affirming the political free speech rights of corporations?  

Arguing briefly for Senator Mitch McConnell as amicus, Floyd Abrams reminded the Court that in New York Times v. Sullivan the Court eschewed available narrow grounds to resolve the case and instead issued a broad ruling to fully vindicate the vital First Amendment interests at stake.  And he told Justice Sotomayor that, similarly here, this is the way the Court would do more good than harm.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan, making her debut appearance on behalf of the FEC, tried to reassure the Court that the government’s position on printed campaign speech had changed.  Don’t worry, she suggested, the FEC has never tried to ban a book, though when pressed she immediately stated a pamphlet might be different.  And this is when Chief Justice Roberts made his comment about not relying on FEC bureaucrats to protect the First Amendment.

But the Court has left countless First Amendment matters in the hands of the government bureaucrats at the FCC at least since Justice Frankfurter’s 1943 opinion in the seminal NBC v. U.S. case in which, in a single paragraph, he subordinated the First Amendment to the public interest standard of the Communications Act.  This later caused Professor Harry Kalven to comment that: “The passage catches a great judge at an unimpressive moment.”  

Over the years, the Court’s deference to the FCC has allowed all manner of infringements on free speech in the name of the amorphous public interest, from the now-defunct (but perhaps soon to be resurrected in some version) fairness doctrine, to the recent debacle over broadcast “indecency,” and maybe to a threatened similar campaign against violence in the media.

But members of the FCC, no less than of the FEC, have no expertise or competence in First Amendment matters.  This is not a comment on any present or former members as individuals; rather it is the basic recognition that the First Amendment disables any government bureaucrat from claiming or exercising any province over matters of free speech or free press.  “Congress shall make no law” is a straightforward “hands-off” policy for government bureaucrats.

During last week’s argument of Citizens United, Justice Breyer suggested to Ted Olson (representing Citizens United) that Congress had a compelling interest for the restrictions it enacted and thought it had narrowly tailored them.  So, the justice asked, should the Court really second-guess Congress?  Mr. Olson forthrightly replied, “You must always second-guess Congress when the First Amendment is in play.”  Exactly so, regardless of the medium of communication at issue, and a fortiori must courts stringently second-guess the FCC when it is infringing free speech, directly or indirectly, as it is wont to do all too frequently.

Whatever the ruling in Citizens United, we can only hope the chief justice’s words reverberate loudly the next time the FCC seeks to sustain an infringement on free speech or press in the name of the public interest.