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Justice Samuel Alito takes on critics of Citizens United ruling

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is defending the court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case that helped fuel hundreds of millions of dollars of spending by independent groups in the just-concluded campaign season.

Alito told roughly 1,500 people at a Federalist Society dinner last week that the First Amendment protects political speech, whether from an individual or a corporation.

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His comments to the overwhelmingly conservative and Republican crowd were part of his broader analysis of arguments put forth by the Obama administration in recent years that Alito said would curtail individual freedoms in favor of stronger federal power.

He said opponents of the 5-to-4 decision have conducted an effective, but misleading, public relations campaign by stressing that the court extended free speech rights to corporations.

But Alito rattled off the names of the nation’s leading newspapers and television networks, all owned by corporations and possessing acknowledged rights to print and say what they wish about politics and government.

‘‘The question is whether speech that goes to the very heart of government should be limited to certain preferred corporations; namely, media corporations,’’ he said. ‘‘Surely the idea that the First Amendment protects only certain privileged voices should be disturbing to anybody who believes in free speech.’’

It was not the first time Alito has taken on critics of the outcome in the Citizens United case. At President Obama’s State of the Union address soon after the court’s ruling in January 2010, the president said the court ‘‘reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.’’

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Alito, sitting with five other justices, was seen to mouth, ‘‘Not true.’’

The justice in his speech Thursday also briefly dealt with high court cases involving religion, private property, surveillance, immigration, and health care. In the latter case, Alito was among four justices who dissented from the ruling that upheld Obama’s health care overhaul.

But he noted that, even in the health care ruling, the court rejected administration arguments in favor of congressional power at the expense of the states and individuals.

Taken together, Alito said, the views put forth by the government begin to suggest a vision of society ‘‘in which the federal government towers over people.’’ He noted that in several cases, not a single justice endorsed the administration’s arguments.

He also humorously recounted his experience at Yale Law School in the early 1970s when he was a student of constitutional law professor Charles Reich, who by then was more interested in American counterculture than the law.

He quoted from Reich’s bestselling ‘‘The Greening of America,’’ in which the author painted a frightening picture of a disintegrating society and called the era a ‘‘moment of utmost sterility, darkest night, most extreme peril.’’

Here, Alito paused and, to the delight of a crowd dismayed by Obama’s reelection, added, ‘‘So our current situation is nothing new.’’

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