The Citizens United decision, which allowed for unlimited money spent in independent political campaigns to be counted as First Amendment free speech, turned five on Wednesday, Jan. 21. To mark that occasion, seven activists with the anti-corruption group 99Rise disrupted the opening of the Supreme Court's proceedings to protest the corrosive influence of unlimited campaign cash on our elections.
In an interview for this article, 99Rise co-founder Kai Newkirk outlined their motivations for the action:
We did this act of nonviolent civil disobedience to send two messages. First, to the Supreme Court justices whose Citizens United ruling betrayed democracy - and every government leader who enables corruption - that they face a determined and growing resistance. And second, to the American people who want a government that represents not just the 1%, but all of us, that there is hope for change and it is time to stand up and demand it.
Mary Zeiser, who stood first, was tackled to the ground shortly thereafter, as can be seen in footage of the protest obtained by The Undercurrent from a source who was present...
Chief Justice John Roberts, the primary proponent of the "expansive" interpretation of money as speech, was shockingly not supportive of this particular display of the First Amendment. He reportedly muttered the words "oh, please" and pointed out protesters to security guards.
The entire episode lasted for less than two minutes, and ended with eight people in handcuffs for conspiracy-related offenses for disrupting the court. Seven were additionally charged with making "a harangue or oration." They were: Andrew Batcher, Irandira Gonzales, Margaret Johnson, Alexandra Flores-Quilty, Katherine Philipson, Curt Ries, and Mary Zeiser.
The eighth individual, Ryan Clayton, allegedly used a concealed camera. Surreptitious video recording is legal in the District of Columbia with the consent of at least one party, but cameras, whether still or video, have not been allowed in the Supreme Court, since 1946 for the former and 1972 for the latter. When Sen. Chuck Grassley pushed to repeal the provision in 1999, the court began to release audio records, but only after the conclusion of oral arguments.
It is unclear as to what penalty Clayton might face, given that this is only the second time that video footage has emerged from court proceedings. The first instance was in February of last year, after another 99Rise protest by Mr. Newkirk. That videographer remains unknown.
Shortly after his release from jail, Clayton issued this statement:
Our Constitution has been interpreted for a century to protect the freedom of the press to publish as well as recognize people's freedom of speech, while at the same time permitting common sense limitations upon electoral activity so that our government represents the citizens of the country. The Founding Fathers would outright reject the notion that bribing politicians and corrupting our government is a form of free speech, and they would consider that claim an insult to both the freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment and the right to self-government enshrined in the United States Constitution.
For an institution that so directly influences American democracy like the Supreme Court to operate in the cloak of darkness impedes the ability of the press to report on it. Despite the availability of same-day written transcripts, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the lack of broadcasting "is out-of-sync with the realities of the media industry."
Apparently for the court, the freedom of the press is one of the pesky, unimportant First Amendment rights -- one which was expressly outlined in the Bill of Rights, not so for the freedom of individuals to spend unlimited sums of money to influence our elections. And ironically enough, the biggest supporters of an "expansive" interpretation of the First Amendment in regards to political campaign cash are the very same justices who oppose allowing cameras into the court.
In remarks to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' Annual Conference in July of 2006, Justice Roberts spoke against cameras:
There's a concern [among justices] about the impact of television on the functioning of the institution. We're going to be very careful before we do anything that might have an adverse impact.
It's a shame that Justice Roberts doesn't have the same concern over the adverse impacts of money on the functioning of our government.