Allowing Free Speech in W.Va.
A West Virginia law limiting free speech in politics should have been stricken from the books in 2010, after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it clear the statute was unconstitutional.
In their 2010 decision, Supreme Court justices dealt with an attempt to limit contributions to political action committees. They held quite properly that such restrictions are unconstitutional curbs on Americans’ right to speak out on important issues. Such statutes are allowable only to prevent corruption or the appearance of it, the justices decided.
Even after that ruling in what has come to be known as the “Citizens United” case, a law similar to the one struck down then remained in force here.
The law banned contributions of more than $1,000 during each election cycle to political action committees operating independently of candidates. Such PACs have become common during recent years, sometimes playing decisive roles in elections.
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, West Virginia’s chief elections officer, is required to uphold the law, even if she believes it will not stand a court test.
One was filed by a PAC and two of its potential donors. Last week, U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston, in the Southern District of West Virginia, ruled against the state.
Tennant’s argument cited reasoning legislators used in adopting the ban in the first place. Their contention was that contributions to independent PACs might raise the perception of corruption.
Perceptions of corruption, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder, of course. What one person might view as improper, another could well consider as highly patriotic.
Johnston made it clear in striking down the limit on PAC contributions that the 2010 Supreme Court ruling was, in large measure, his guide. Again, legislators should have come to the same conclusion in 2010 and rescinded the ban.
Tennant has said she does not intend to appeal Johnston’s decision. Good. The state limit on PACs should never have been enacted in the first place. It was a clear violation of West Virginians’ freedom of speech, in that it attempted to limit their ability to support PACs supporting particular points of view and/or candidates.