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Sen. Bob Bennett says he's a First Amendment hawk

WASHINGTON — As Democrats called this week for legislation to overturn a new Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to spend their money on federal political campaigns, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, told them they are trying to hinder free speech and should let the decision stand.

Bennett said the court's Jan. 21 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which voided a ban on direct corporate spending on campaigns, "means all Americans can praise or criticize office holders without having to worry" that it is somehow a crime.

Bennett, ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Rules, spoke during a hearing Tuesday at which several Democrats called for legislation to reverse the case. Committee Chairman Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the ruling could unleash a blizzard of special-interest spending that might give too much power to well-heeled corporations.

Schumer said, "If this ruling is left unchallenged, if Congress fails to act, our country will be faced with big, moneyed interests spending — or threatening to spend — millions on ads against those who dare to stand up to them."

Bennett said he doubted that and said the ruling simply allows free speech. "I am a First Amendment hawk. I am one of a very small number of conservative Republicans who voted against the flag-burning amendment simply because I felt it intruded on our First Amendment rights."

Bennett added in a statement after the hearing, "This decision means one thing and one thing only — that there will be more free speech in our political campaigns. That is a good thing and should not be feared."

Schumer said he is looking at a wide range of possible responses, including expanding campaign disclosure requirements, requiring shareholder approval of corporate spending on elections or restricting spending by federal contractors and U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., also called for a possible constitutional amendment to counter the decision.

This story was reported from Salt Lake City.

e-mail: lee@desnews.com