Stephen Colbert Lampoons the First Amendment

Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert took his vaudeville routine to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) Thursday morning. He emerged from the choreographed hearing with approval from the agency to form what’s called a super PAC, an entity that may raise and spend unlimited funds to blast or boost federal candidates.

Steve Dingledine, a 43-year-old Washington resident, arrived at 5:45 a.m. to catch a glimpse of the faux-newsman. Colbert is a “court jester par excellence,” Dingledine declared, but he said he also hopes that the comedian’s shtick will shift public opinion. “The awareness is going to be raised to a point where the loophole cannot be exploited by media companies,” the Colbert groupie said.

What advocates of strict campaign finance regulation call a “loophole,” others call protected political speech under the First Amendment. In May, Colbert submitted an advisory opinion request through an attorney asking the FEC to sanction his political action committee.

The central question was whether Comedy Central’s corporate parent company, Viacom, had to report administrative assistance to the PAC and potential payments to air political ads on other television stations. FEC lawyers submitted three different drafts responding to Colbert, and the agency ultimately approved a compromise version allowing Colbert to claim the “press exemption” to campaign finance law. Viacom must therefore report PAC involvement not relating to the late-night program, including logistical support for the PAC and advertising placement on other networks.

Inside the packed hearing room, Colbert’s request didn’t sound like an effort to open a loophole for laughs. A subdued Colbert was nearly mute as his lawyer, Trevor Potter, blandly answered commissioners’ questions with only brief interjections from his client. After all the hype, Colbert’s appearance seemed anti-climatic, in contrast to his cheering fans waiting outside.

By 9:30 a.m., more than 30 of those fans were standing in line, along with a few campaign finance lawyers and Capitol Hill staffers. Six “coordinators” clad in red t-shirts reading “COLBERT SUPER PAC” arrived with signs to energize the crowd. Four Department of Homeland Security officers, who were there to provide security, told the redshirts that no “signs or protests were allowed” in the FEC hearing room. The redshirts assured the police that they planned to remain on the sidewalk’s de facto free speech zone.

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