Stephen Colbert is Teaching Citizens United

Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report

Written by Hazel Weiser

One of the pedagogy sessions at the AALS New Teachers Workshop was led by Paula Lustbader (Seattle) and Laurie Zimet (UC Hastings) who focused on how to bring technology into the classroom so that we aren’t competing with Facebook, Twitter, and GiltGroup.com.  (I’ll leave those links out so that you will finish this posting!)  Paula and Laurie are gifted teachers of teachers, modeling for the newbies how abandoning lecture and incorporating technology will make teaching and learning more dynamic, and empower rather than infantilize students.

So with Paula and Laurie in mind, I watched Stephen Colbert this week awed once again by the sheer chutzpah of his comedy.

This week Stephen appeared before the Federal Election Commission to get an advisory opinion permitting him to form his Colbert SuperPAC and solicit donations for it on The Colbert Report without exposing Viacom, the hosting cable station, to mandatory financial disclosures.  The cleverly edited hearing footage exposes the jargon and incomprehensibility of federal election law.

The video is fun, but for those Constitutional Law professors who are agonizing over how to make sense of Citizens United and its corrupting rerouting of money away from the political parties (and accountability) and into the hands of ideologues, well, you have it: Colbert’s SuperPAC, a whole season of it.

To begin the saga, here is a link to the advisory opinion.

The purpose of the request for the FEC advisory opinion is simple and two-fold:

“Mr. Colbert wishes to establish the Committee to solicit and accept contributions in unlimited amounts from the general public for the purpose of making independent expenditures.” In addition, Colbert needed to insulate Viacom and asked for an opinion as to whether the “press exemption” would cover costs incurred by Viacom or whether these costs must be disclosed as in-kind contributions to the Committee.

For those of you who aren’t Colbert fans, the advisory opinion reviews his forays into politics, including a run in South Carolina in 2008 to become a presidential nominee.  The reiteration of Colbert’s letters requesting the advisory opinion, although factually accurate, exposes the inanity of Citizens United’s evisceration of federal election laws.

Colbert represented that Colbert SuperPAC “will make only independent expenditures and will not make monetary or in-kind contributions to any candidate, political committee, or political party.  It also will not coordinate its expenditures with any candidate or political party.  The Committee will solicit and accept unlimited contributions from individuals, political committees, corporations, and labor organizations.“  (emphasis added)

Of course, relying on Citizens United, the advisory opinion concludes that so long as the Colbert SuperPAC does not support a candidate or party, it can solicit “unlimited” funds from “individuals, political committees, labor organizations, and corporations (but not foreign nationals, Federal contractors, national banks, or corporations organized by authority of any law of Congress).”

“The Commission further concludes that while some of Viacom’s activities would fall within the press exemption, others would not.  The Show’s coverage of the Committee, and its production of independent expenditure advertisements used solely in the Show’s coverage of the Committee, would fall within the press exemption.  Thus, costs incurred by Viacom in connection with these activities would not need to be disclosed by the Committee as in-kind contributions.  However, Viacom’s production of independent expenditure advertisements provided to the Committee to distribute outside of the Show (including airing as paid advertisements on other shows and networks or as content for the Committee’s website), and Viacom’s administration and operation of the Committee, would not fall within the press exemption, because these activities are not legitimate press functions. Consequently, all costs incurred by Viacom for these activities would need to be disclosed by the Committee as in-kind contributions to the Committee.”

Ironically, the FEC issued its opinion just days after Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS announced that it was releasing $20 million in anti-Obama ads for the November 2012 election. The ads will run in key swing states, including Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, and Virginia.  Crossroads GPS announced the launch differently:  “Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies (Crossroads GPS) announced a new $20 million issue advocacy initiative over the next two months to frame the national debate on jobs, the economy and the national debt in anticipation of congressional action on these issues.”

Colbert has filed to establish a SuperPAC, although its name is “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.” I suspect he will be providing us with a lot of material over the course of the next presidential cycle.  Thank you, Mr. Colbert, for this opportunity to enliven our Constitutional Law classes.  And hopefully, this coverage will prompt a deliberate and informed discussion of campaign finance laws both in our communities and in the halls of Congress.