The Supreme Court Monday loosened campaign finance restrictions in a ruling on free speech that will give lobby groups a louder voice in television ads for next year’s presidential election.
In a 5-4 ruling, the nation’s highest tribunal found that the rights to free speech of interest groups had been unfairly curbed by a law that limited their influence in the final stretch of electioneering.
The decision overturned a legal ban promoted in 2002 by Senator John McCain that prevented an anti-abortion group from broadcasting advertisements in Wisconsin in the two months before the 2004 general election.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the ban infringed the constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech.
“When it comes to defining what speech qualifies as the functional equivalent of express advocacy subject to such a ban… we give the benefit of the doubt to speech, not censorship,” he wrote.
Under the 2002 campaign finance reform inspired by the Republican McCain and Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, interest groups including companies and trades unions were banned from airing ads that name a candidate for office.
The aim was to prevent the kind of “attack ads” that have become increasingly prevalent on the US political scene in the closing weeks of an election.
The Supreme Court ruled that such ads are allowed to name a candidate in the context of a broader discussion of the public interest group’s cause, without calling explicitly for that candidate to be elected or rejected.
The implications are likely to be felt nationally towards the end of this year as Democratic and Republican voters in states like Florida, New Hampshire and Iowa prepare to hold ballots on their choice for the White House.
Under a slightly different membership, the Supreme Court had upheld the McCain-Feingold act, including the ads portion, in a landmark ruling in 2003.
Representing the minority of four justices in Monday’s ruling, liberal judge David Souter said the 2003 decision had been “effectively and unjustifiably overruled today.”