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Alito Calls Free-Speech Limits 'Dangerous' as Court Considers Cases

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2007

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. made it clear as he began taking questions at yesterday's National Italian American Foundation luncheon that he couldn't reveal any of the Supreme Court's forthcoming opinions.

But did he at least give a hint?

Two of the court's biggest remaining cases focus on the First Amendment, and while Alito didn't mention either, he did make it clear that any restrictions on speech face a high hurdle with him.

"I'm a very strong believer in the First Amendment and the right of people to speak and to write," Alito said in response to a question of "where's the line" on what can be posted on the Internet. "I would be reluctant to support restrictions on what people could say."

The newest justice, who was protective of speech rights as an appellate judge, added that "some restrictions have been held to be consistent with the First Amendment, but it's very dangerous for the government to restrict speech."

Alito's vote is expected to be influential and perhaps decisive in two of the court's biggest cases concerning free-speech restrictions.

One is the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case in which the court is examining whether a principal violated the rights of a student who unfurled that message along a parade route across from the school. It's considered the most important student speech case to reach the court in decades.

And the court is also deciding a challenge to a part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that says corporations, unions and special interest groups may not name federal candidates in ads broadcast in the run-up to elections. A group called Wisconsin Right to Life says that is an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

The court broadly upheld McCain-Feingold's restrictions in 2003 on a 5 to 4 vote, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in the majority. Because Alito replaced O'Connor, his vote is seen as key in the new and specific challenge.

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