Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court determined corporations enjoy the same rights and privileges as individuals as far as free speech is concerned, we’ve witnessed a dramatic change in American politics. You could argue the change has not been for the good.
In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court ruled the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting a nonprofit corporation’s spending on political campaigns. The principals involved in the case interpreted the Court’s decision to be applicable to for-profit corporations, labor unions and every other neer-do-well that cares to stick its nose into politics.
In other words, the Court said special interests could spend however much they want to influence the outcome of an election. Some restrictions would apply, of course.
In light of the Court’s decision in Citizens United, scores of corporations, labor unions and do-gooders among us figured out how to hide their meddling. They did it and continue to do it by forming what’s known as Super PACS, or political action committees on steroids. They’re a big deal.
In essence, a corporation or some other organization that wishes to influence a particular election just needs to form a Super PAC, which can solicit and receive unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and others. They can spend the money they raise willy-nilly as well, particularly on television commercials, radio commercials, newspaper advertisements, social media and the like.
One of the restrictions Super PACS deal with concerns content, such as the accuracy of the political message that’s conveyed to the voting public. We should interpret that to mean that a television commercial or any other form of advertisement paid for by a Super PAC must provide proof the commercial is accurate beyond a shadow of a doubt. It’s a serious matter, and there’s no room for mistakes though Super PACS do their best to air erroneous information quite often. That’s why a candidate’s campaign keeps a trusty lawyer on speed dial in case the campaign must reach out to a television station or go to court to rein in some Super PAC that chooses to play fast and loose with the law.
The irony of all this is Super PACs are held to a higher standard than the candidates themselves. In other words, a candidate’s campaign can get away with lying in a television or radio commercial or in a newspaper advertisement, but Super PACs cannot.
Odd, isn’t it?
There’s a glaring example of an erroneous commercial on television today in Louisiana dealing with the governor’s race. It was put on the air by Sen. David Vitter’s campaign, not the Super PAC that was formed to aid Vitter’s cause.
The commercial in question accused Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, one of Vitter’s opponents in the governor’s race, of supporting a so-called initiative backed by President Obama to provide free phones for — we are left to assume — people who don’t work for a living. The allegation is false.
The issue in question concerns a resolution the Public Service Commission passed to endorse a grant application to provide broadband Internet access in the Monroe area.
The Vitter campaign can get away with airing it; a Super PAC could not.
There are other examples of false ads floating around in the campaign for governor, and you can rest assured, Vitter isn’t the only one doing it. At some point, every candidate in any campaign is guilty of being a little less than honest.
Yet, it was only a matter of time before the governor’s race took a turn for the worse. We’re seeing it just about anytime we turn on the “boob tube,” better known as the television.
The candidates and the Super PACs supporting them are airing commercials at every turn. Some of them are pretty good. Some are not so good.
But the voters have the tools at their disposal to determine what’s right and accurate and what’s wrong and disingenuous. It’s right in front of them in newspapers, on the Internet and elsewhere.
So do your own research. Educate yourself about the issues. Become an informed voter.
And do yourself a favor by turning off the “boob tube.”
Sam Hanna is a state political writer.