COMMENTS: Split Speech Votes

The Supreme Court went in two directions simultaneously in its free speech rulings. It struck down the ban on issues advertising during election campaigns--in favor of interest groups, ABC's George Stephanopoulos suggested, such as the Sierra Club and National Right to Life. "This ruling blows a hole in the McCain-Feingold Act." Now, Stephanopoulos explained "you can run TV ads right up until Election Day praising candidates, criticizing candidates, as long as you do not use the words 'Vote For' or 'Vote Against.'" The ruling argued that "it can be hard" to tell the difference between an authentic issues ad and an attack ad in disguise, NBC's Pete Williams elaborated. "When it comes to free speech, the tie goes to the speaker not the censor."

High school students, on the other hand, "just do not have the same Constitutional rights that the rest of us do," CBS' in-house legal eagle Andrew Cohen told Wyatt Andrews (no link). That ruling concerned the slogan Bong Hits 4 Jesus, a sentiment directed at the Olympic Torch as it passed through Juneau Alaska in 2002. NBC's Williams called the message "a nonsensical phrase intended to test free speech rights." That test did not go so well: the principal tore the banner down; she suspended its author from school; she was supported in doing so not only by the Supreme Court but by ABC anchor Charles Gibson. "I would think that most people would look at this as common sense," he opined when the Jesus message was construed as harmful advocacy of illegal behavior. ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg (no link) reminded Gibson of the counterargument: "Students should be able to talk about drug use. Maybe they want to change drug laws."

Both rulings were narrow majorities, a 5-4 vote, perhaps a consequence of George Bush's nominee Samuel Alito replacing the Court's onetime swing vote Sandra Day O'Connor. NBC's Williams called it a "more conservative court now" and CBS' Andrews noted its "direction towards pro-business, anti-lawsuit and anti-abortion." He called it 'what the President was hoping for" when he appointed Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.


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