Ten years ago this week, a bogeyman was born. Its name is Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down limits on independent corporate political spending and, liberal Cassandras say, ushered in a dystopian era in which big-money interests got official permission to buy democracy.

Quick history lesson: Citizens United was a nonprofit group that, during the 2008 Democratic primaries, sought to air a 90-minute, ideological documentary deeply critical of Hillary Clinton to Americans’ homes via pay-per-view. The Federal Election Commission barred its broadcast under rules enforcing the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

The Supreme Court faced a question: How could such a ban stand in a nation whose Constitution has a First Amendment forbidding government limitations on speech, and in which political speech is deemed the most privileged and protected form of expression?

How could it be that, in an act of expression no one would ever contemplate abridging, a for-profit corporation could in the thick of the 2004 presidential election release into theaters and advertise on television “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a strident anti-George W. Bush documentary, but the release of “Hillary: The Movie,” a photo-negative film, could four years later be criminalized?

And how could it be, as Theodore Olson argued before the court, that “it is a felony for a small, nonprofit corporation to offer interested viewers a 90-minute political documentary about a candidate for the nation’s highest office, that General Electric,” then owner of NBC; “National Public Radio; or George Soros may freely broadcast”? He could’ve added Fox News to the litany.

And how could it possibly be that government could never stop a publication owned by a billionaire or a corporation, like the one you’re currently reading, from putting online and printing a 7,500-word, 14-chapter editorial urging readers to “Bury Trump in a landslide,” but it could prohibit other corporate entities from similarly speaking?

Those who worry about dark money corrupting elections are more than justified in arguing for stronger disclosure rules, changes that must happen at the FEC and Internal Revenue Service and which require congressional action, but arbitrary distinctions barring some political speech could never, can never, hold in a free society.

Democrats can rail all they like about the evils of independent political speech by individuals, groups of individuals or corporations. What they cannot do is use the power of government to silence it.

New York Daily News

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