Slate’s U.S. Supreme Court commentator Dahlia Lithwick has written a paean to Stephen Colbert and his satirical Super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. As Lithwick sees it, the members of the Citizens United majority are getting their just deserts, as Colbert uses his Super PAC to attack a decision that contributed to the creation of Super PACs.
But there’s a problem with Lithwick’s narrative: Virtually everything Stephen Colbert is doing was legal before Citizens United.
Although Colbert has often used the phrase “unlimited corporate money” in reference to his Super PAC, last Tuesday’s disclosures paint a very different picture. Colbert’s PAC, which raised more than $825,000 through the end of the year, has raised almost no corporate money. Indeed, the only two corporate donations he reported to the Federal Election Commission amount to $714, total. In addition to barely raising any corporate money, Colbert’s Super PAC accepted only one contribution from an individual (of $9,600) in excess of the $5,000 limit that applies to regular PACs.
In other words, more than 99% of the money Colbert has raised to mock Citizens United and Super PACs is money that has been legal under the campaign finance laws for decades.
So what are the real lessons to be learned from Colbert’s surprisingly un-Super PAC?
Perhaps the most obvious is that campaign finance laws are rarely a hindrance for people with television shows espousing political messages that are already popular. Those people already have the ability to get their message out to a national audience. Political upstarts or outsiders—the real beneficiaries of the rulings in Citizens United and SpeechNow.org v. FEC—don’t have that option.
But another lesson—or perhaps more of a sad reminder—is that free speech will never want for critics. There will always be those who use their free speech rights to advocate that others’ be restricted. And it is surely their right to do so. But such people aren’t—as Colbert and Lithwick seem to believe—cleverly using the tools of the Machine to attack the Machine. They’re simply advocating censorship for speech they disagree with, and weakening the basis of their own rights in the process.
Image source: MHimmelrich