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Supreme Court reaffirms corporate speech freedoms in Montana case

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  1. Prior Restraint
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Montana ban on corporations’ political contributions today, reaffirming on the state level its…

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Montana ban on corporations’ political contributions today, reaffirming on the state level its 2010 ruling against federal regulations of corporate and union speech.

In a 5-4 decision that broke along political lines, much like that in the Court's opinion in Citizens United v. FEC two years ago, the Court struck down a Montana statute banning independent expenditures by corporations, finding that the law violated the First Amendment. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the state law last year, despite the higher court’s Citizens United ruling, which held that corporations' campaign contributions are a form of free speech and therefore cannot be regulated.

“The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law. There can be no serious doubt that it does,” according to the Court’s brief unsigned majority opinion in American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock.

Like the organizations that argued that their right to free speech was violated by the regulations at issue in the Montana and Citizens United cases, almost all media corporations, regardless of size, are incorporated. Most court cases defining the freedoms upon which the press relies have involved the rights of media corporations, including landmark cases such as the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and the Pentagon Papers case.

“[P]olitical speech does not lose First Amendment protection simply because its source is a corporation,” the Supreme Court ruled in 2010’s Citizens United case. In the Court's majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that if it could regulate corporate and union speech, "Congress could also ban political speech of media corporations."

When the Court was preparing to hear oral arguments for that case in 2009, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press submitted a friend-of-the-court brief, arguing that campaign finance reform regulations must be clarified to recognize a broadly defined, First Amendment-based exemption for the news media.

"Whatever the aims of campaign finance regulations and statutes, they must be aligned with the protections the First Amendment provides for the press," the Reporters Committee wrote. "A free, robust, and invigorated news media — one that is not afraid its speech will fall under the specter of government regulation — furthers the democratic goals of campaign finance reform and should be protected as the Framers intended when the First Amendment was adopted."

Justice Stephen Breyer dissented from the opinion issued today, noting that “independent expenditures by corporations did in fact lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption in Montana.” He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.