Times Fails to Hail Free Speech Victory in Supreme Court, Frets Over 'Corrupting of Democracy'

The nation's leading newspaper would of course celebrate a First Amendment victory at the Supreme Court, right? Well, not exactly. Front-page headline: "Dissenters Argue That Ruling Will Corrupt Democracy."

Friday's lead slot was dominated by the Supreme Court's expected but still momentous decision rejecting limits on corporate campaign spending in elections. While the five more conservative justices took the free speech side, the four liberals argued for limits on the ability of corporations, non-profits, and labor unions to spend money advocating for or again politicians during campaigns.

The subhead to Adam Liptak's story, "Justices, 5-4, Reject Corporate Campaign Spending Limit," ignored the victory for free speech in favor of dour liberal musings on the corruption of democracy: "Dissenters Argue That Ruling Will Corrupt Democracy."

Overruling two important precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, a bitterly divided Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.

(A nytimes.com search indicates the Times has found a "bitterly divided Supreme Court" on three occasions this millennium, including yesterday's campaign finance decision. Coincidentally or not, all three of those horribly "bitter" decisions went in favor of the conservative side.)

The 5-to-4 decision was a vindication, the majority said, of the First Amendment's most basic free speech principle - that the government has no business regulating political speech. The dissenters said that allowing corporate money to flood the political marketplace would corrupt democracy.

Most of the paper's coverage was reflected through the prism of the dissenters' point of view, with the decision seen not as a victory for free speech, but as a "corrupting of democracy." The paper's large lead editorial made the same point.

President Obama called it "a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans."

The justices in the majority brushed aside warnings about what might follow from their ruling in favor of a formal but fervent embrace of a broad interpretation of free speech rights.

"If the First Amendment has any force," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, which included the four members of the court's conservative wing, "it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech."

At the end, Liptak briefly glanced at the elephant in the room: While individuals and businesses are restricted in free speech by limitations on campaign donations, journalists and media organs are not:

Justice Kennedy's majority opinion said that there was no principled way to distinguish between media corporations and other corporations and that the dissent's theory would allow Congress to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books and on blogs.

Justice Stevens responded that people who invest in media corporations know "that media outlets may seek to influence elections." He added in a footnote that lawmakers might now want to consider requiring corporations to disclose how they intended to spend shareholders' money or to put such spending to a shareholder vote.

The Times certainly "seeks to influence elections," as it did last year with its fawning Obama campaign coverage and contempt for the McCain-Palin ticket.