The Supreme Court eases restrictions on political ads and curtails student speech.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
June 26 2007 6:09 AM

A Court Divided

The New York Times and Washington Postlead, while the Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox, with yesterday's Supreme Court ruling that eased restrictions on what kind of political issue ads financed by corporations or unions can be broadcast before an election. In a 5-4 decision, the court said that the part of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law that bans these types of ads if they mention a candidate's name weeks before an election is unconstitutional because it amounts to censorship of political speech. The court ruled that ads can be banned only if they explicitly say that one candidate should be favored in an election, and not if they merely talk about a politician's views. There were two other 5-4 rulings yesterday that everyone notes showed the influence of the two justices appointed by President Bush.

USA Today fronts the rulings butleads with a look at how almost a third of the "anti-terrorism money" that the federal government has awarded to states and cities since 2002 remains unspent. Even though almost $5 billion is still "in federal coffers" Congress is likely to award even more money than the $2.2 billion the White House requested for 2008. The Los Angeles Timesalso fronts the Supreme Court but leads with the wildfire that broke out south of Lake Tahoe on Sunday afternoon and burned more than 250 structures. As of last night, officials said the fire was about 40 percent contained.

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The dissenting justices in the campaign-finance decision pointed out that the Supreme Court had upheld the portion of the McCain-Feingold law that had to do with issue ads  in 2003. "The court (and, I think, the country) loses when important precedent is overruled without good reason," Justice David Souter wrote. Meanwhile, three of the majority justices made it clear that they want to get rid of all bans on political ads before an election, and some predict it's only a matter of time  before the court revisits the issue. Everyone notes the ruling will likely lead to more political issue ads before the 2008 elections. 

In another 5-4 decision, the court limited the rights of student speech by ruling that a high-school principal acted constitutionally when she tore down a 14-foot banner that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." The senior responsible for the banner, who was suspended, said the words were nonsense and all he wanted was to get on TV, but the justices said its message could "reasonably be viewed" as promoting drug use. "Yesterday's ruling was the first time the court has said that schools can prohibit a student expression that was neither obscene nor published under the school's auspices," writes the WP. "Attention students: You can still be political at school," writes Slate's Dahlia Lithwick. "But the constitution stops protecting you the moment you cross the line into merely weird."

And, in the last 5-4 decision of the day, the court ruled that taxpayers can't challenge President Bush's initiative to give federal money to religious groups. Although citizens can't normally challenge how the government spends tax money, there's an exception for cases having to do with the separation of church and state. But the court said these types of challenges are permitted only if the program is financed by Congress, and not when it's run out of the executive branch.

The rulings can clearly be seen as a victory for the more conservative wing of the Supreme Court. But, as the WSJ emphasizes, the decisions "revealed fissures among the five conservative justices." In a good Page One story that analyzes the opinions, USAT notes that a clear line has been marked between the conservative justices who are eager to overturn previous decisions and the new Bush appointees who "are reluctant to completely gut court precedents."

For the most part, the papers' editorial pages aren't happy with the decisions. The WP says the campaign-finance ruling "reopens a dangerous loophole." USAT laments that Chief Justice John Roberts did not show "the same solicitude for students' free-speech rights as for those of moneyed interests that asked the court to increase the size of their megaphones." The NYT criticizes all three decisions and says the court "extended its noxious habit of casting aside precedents without acknowledging it." The LAT warns that the bong hits decision "has made it easier for hypercautious school officials to clamp down on a wide range of student speech," but in a separate editorial praises the campaign-finance ruling while contending that it didn't go far enough to protect political speech. For its part, the WSJ also says the justices should have done away with all bans on political ads before an election and predicts the decision will result in "more years of legal and electoral confusion on what ought to be a matter of bright-line constitutional right."

The NYT fronts, and everyone mentions, a suicide bombing in a Baghdad hotel that killed at least four Sunni sheiks (the LAT says five) who were cooperating with U.S. troops in Anbar province to fight against al-Qaida forces. The LAT says the bombing "risked derailing an emerging alliance between the Sunni Muslim tribal leaders … and the country's Shiite Muslim majority."

The Post goes inside with an American general warning that "it'll take years" before Iraqi security forces can "fully take control" of the country.

The Post fronts an interesting look at the "largely unnoticed psychological toll" that the war is having on Iraq's youth. Experts say that the war will scar children for life and will be key in shaping the next generation of Iraqis, which some predict will be very violent as a result of everything they have experienced in the past few years.

The third part in an ongoing Post series shows how Vice President Dick Cheney has been instrumental in shaping the administration's economic policies. And it's becoming increasingly clear that while Bush worries about the big picture, Cheney is the one concerned with the details. "The president is 'the decider,' as Bush puts it, but the vice president often serves up his menu of choices," writes the Post.

The WP fronts news that the judge who brought a $54 million lawsuit against his neighborhood dry cleaners won't get any money. And in other court-related hoopla, yes, Paris Hilton was released from jail early this morning.

On Sunday, TP writer Roger McShane mentioned a NYT story about Iran and asked readers to "check out the unbelievable photo" that showed a police officer punishing a man for wearing clothes deemed un-Islamic by forcing him to "suck on a jug that Iranians use to wash themselves after defecating." Turns out he was right about the "unbelievable" part.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.

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