Live From New York It’s … Ted Cruz?

Ron Fein Legal Director, Free Speech For People
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In a few weeks, Saturday Night Live will celebrate its 40th anniversary season. While SNL has had its ups and downs, one thing has stayed true: its hilarious parodies of politicians, including every president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama. But lately Texas Senator Ted Cruz has been using SNL to argue that our democracy apparently needs unlimited corporate spending to function properly.

According to Senator Cruz, common-sense measures to limit corporate political dollars would make SNL illegal. But Senator Cruz’s claims should be thrown into the Super Bass-o-Matic.

Senator Cruz’s SNL reference came in a debate over a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow state and federal laws to rein in big money in politics, and in particular, corporate money. The senator’s theory is that this amendment would allow the government to criminalize SNL, because it’s shown by NBC, which is a corporation.

To understand why Senator Cruz is wrong, let’s rewind to SNL’s first year: 1975.

America was still reeling from the Watergate scandal and revelations of huge corporate contributions in the 1972 election campaign. Responding to public pressure, Congress had recently passed the Federal Election Campaign Act. That law put sensible limits on how much money could be raised and spent in federal elections. And it retained and updated a provision, first signed by Republican President Teddy Roosevelt in 1907, limiting corporate money in federal elections. The law was challenged in court as supposedly violating the First Amendment, but that summer, the highly respected U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. rebuffed most of the challenges, explaining that “[t]he corrosive influence of money blights our democratic processes” and “these latest efforts on the part of our government to cleanse its democratic processes should at least be given a chance to prove themselves.” SNL debuted in October, and by November, Chevy Chase was making fun of the president on live national television, which he did throughout the 1976 campaign season.

All this time, corporations were banned from spending money in federal election campaigns.

The next year, the Supreme Court overruled parts of the court of appeals’ decision, opening the door for unlimited individual political spending. But it didn’t touch the ban on corporate political spending. And SNL continued. In fact, SNL had some of its best seasons in the 1980s, while the law limiting corporate political dollars was still in effect. And in case there was any doubt, in 1990 the Supreme Court specifically upheld bans on corporate political spending, rejecting any claim that they violated the First Amendment.

Fast forward now to 2010, when everything changed. The Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision held for the first time that corporations have a First Amendment right to unlimited political spending in federal elections, and 2012, when the Court applied Citizens United to the states. That outraged a lot of people, Democrats and Republicans alike. And there’s been a bipartisan movement to restore the First Amendment by amending our Constitution to clarify what everyone understood until a short time ago: that money is not speech, and that while corporations have an important role in our economy, they shouldn’t have too much influence on our politics.

The amendment bill that Senator Cruz criticized will allow the public to set “reasonable limits on raising and spending money,” and restores our former ability to limit corporate cash in our election campaigns. As far as corporate political spending is concerned, the amendment would just restore the status quo that we had from 1907 to 2009 — which includes most of SNL’s best seasons.

The amendment doesn’t regulate anyone’s speech. It doesn’t “repeal the First Amendment,” as Senator Cruz has claimed — rather, it restores the First Amendment to what we had before Citizens United unleashed a flood of unlimited spending. And in case anyone could possibly be confused, it even clarifies that “[n]othing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress or the States the power to abridge the freedom of the press.” (TV stations, such as NBC or Fox News, count as press.)

When SNL makes fun of politicians, that’s exactly what the First Amendment is meant to protect, and what it will continue to protect after the campaign finance amendment passes. That’s totally different from NBC’s parent corporation Comcast spending millions of dollars on lobbying and political contributions, for example, to influence the government’s decision on its proposed merger with Time Warner. The first is speech, and won’t be affected by the amendment; the second is political spending, and will.

Senator Cruz’s bizarre argument has been shredded by everyone from esteemed former Republican Senator Alan Simpson (who advised Cruz to “read the damn amendment”) to CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. Maybe he should take a page from Minnesota Senator, and former SNL writer and performer, Al Franken, who called Citizens United “one of the worst decisions in the history of the Supreme Court” and voted for the very amendment that Cruz rails against.

Even Senator Cruz wasn’t that concerned, because when the amendment bill came to the Senate floor, he didn’t even bother to vote.

This isn’t about Democrats, Republicans, or the political fights of today. This is about reclaiming our democracy for ourselves and our country’s future. Here’s hoping SNL will last another 40 years — and Citizens United will go the way of three-legged jeans.