The Boston Globe reports, somewhat belatedly, on the Federal Election Commission’s decision last month to classify the nonprofit group Citizens United as a “press entity.” The consequence of that decision is that Citizens United—which has to date produced 14 documentaries—is spared from the intrusive and burdensome disclosure requirements that often apply to groups that spend money on political speech.
Predictably, supporters of stringent campaign finance laws are dismayed. What’s remarkable, though, is that none of them express concerns with the press exemption generally. Yet the very existence of the press exemption seriously undermines the case for campaign finance disclosure for independent groups.
When a traditional press entity like, say, the Boston Globe, publishes a political editorial, readers don’t have access to information about the paper’s financing. Instead, they have to evaluate those political arguments on their merits. So-called “reformers” seem to have no problem with this. But if we trust the public to rationally evaluate corporate messages that just happen to come from the institutional press, there is absolutely no reason why we should not trust the public to rationally evaluate messages from nontraditional forms of media, whether it be a blog post, a 30-second television ad, or a two-hour documentary.
The real outrage is not that Citizens United was deemed worthy of the press exemption, but that others who engage in equally valid exercises of their First Amendment rights do not enjoy that same privilege. No one should have to prove to a government bureaucrat that they have earned the right to speak free from government burdens—the First Amendment guarantees that right to all of us.