"If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v FEC.

The Court ruled American political speech is not limited because it is expressed through a corporation or union, thus they may use their general treasury funds to pay for explicit electioneering through independent expenditures. The Court also invalidated the McCain-Feingold restrictions against third-party electioneering within 30 days of a federal primary and 60 days of a federal general election - exciting critics of campaign finance "reform" who called that provision "the incumbent protection act."

The case did not involve contribution limits or prohibitions against corporate contributions and the Court did not address those issues. The prohibition against corporate contributions to federal candidates and federal PACs remains intact. The Court upheld disclaimers and disclosures.

What does this mean for Mississippi? In non-federal, non-judicial elections, Mississippi restricts corporate contributions to $1000 per year. Individual and PAC contributions are unlimited (except for companies, stockholders and agents of industries regulated by the Public Service Commission who may not contribute to PSC campaigns.) Corporate funds can be employed in "independent expenditures" uncoordinated with a campaign (if coordinated the "in-kind" contribution would otherwise violate corporate caps). Issue advocacy in Mississippi - which can mention a candidate and describe positive or negative items as long as it refrains from "electioneering" terms - is also unlimited, and can even be coordinated because the Court does not consider such speech to be campaign related.

None of this changes following the Citizens United ruling.

In Mississippi judicial elections, corporate contributions are also limited to $1000 and all PAC and individual contributions are limited to $5000 for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals campaigns, and $2500 for all other judicial campaigns. The independent expenditure and issue advocacy rules are the same. Again, no changes.

Mississippi's contributions limits are fairly liberal - in the original sense of the word. We let citizens and groups of citizens freely come together and use time, resources and money to advocate for or against candidates or issues. We do require disclosure by candidates and PACs of any contributions or expenditures made above $200. Organizations engaged in issue advocacy may keep their details private as a means of protecting their members against political retribution, a principle expressed well in NAACP v Alabama.

While Citizens United does not directly affect current Mississippi campaign law, it could impact Mississippi congressional elections. However, Bradley Smith from the Center for Competitive Politics notes, "the idea that corporations are going to devote 10 percent of their profits or something like that to independent political expenditures is just absurd." Considering the economy, public relations, and stockholder concerns, most commercial corporations will likely engage in politics as they have in the past, and not create internal political departments.

A memo on the case by Washington attorney Ben Ginsberg of Patton Boggs describes the political ramifications: corporate supports tends to be not partisan but incumbent directed; union support tends 98 percent toward Democrats; "527s" are now unnecessary; and candidates under $2400 contribution caps face message control challenges as new voices enjoy unlimited spending. Ginsberg suggests 501c4 and 501c6 organizations are "likely to emerge as the biggest players" as they "have been granted the ability to engage much more robustly in the political process." Other winners include television, radio, web sites and newspapers looking for advertising revenue - as well as political vendors who create and place that content.

Three more cases pending before federal courts could further refine campaign finance laws.

Republican National Committee v FEC in federal district court seeks to strike the McCain-Feingold prohibition against soft-money for efforts unrelated to candidate advocacy (party building, redistricting efforts). The Court could use such a case to strike or ease contribution limits.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is currently reviewing SpeechNow.org v FEC in which plaintiffs are challenging the $5000 contribution cap from PACs to organizations making independent expenditures for or against federal candidates.

And in April, the Supreme Court will hear Doe v Reed: a constitutional challenge to Washington State's disclosure laws as a violation of the First Amendment's right to privacy. Plaintiffs claim they faced actual harassment and reprisals as a result of disclosures; something Citizens United failed to show when the Court upheld disclosure rules.

The solution to free and equal speech comes not in limits but in freedom. Restricting speech based on the speaker is as abhorrent to the First Amendment as restricting speech based on the political content. The ultimate winner in the Citizens United case is the First Amendment.

Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.