We urge a No vote on ANY "campaign reform" legislation that would erode the First Amendment rights of citizen groups and political parties
We are strongly opposed to pending legislative proposals that would impose new restrictions on free speech about federal politicians by non-profit citizen groups and political parties. Under the rulings of the Supreme Court, the First Amendment protects the right of groups of American citizens to engage in interpretative commentary regarding the positions and voting records of specific federal politicians, without government-imposed rationing of such speech and without compulsory reporting of donors' names to the government. The legal term of art for such constitutionally protected commentary is "issue advocacy."
However, the right of citizen groups and parties to engage in unrestricted issue advocacy is now under unprecedented assault. Those who wish to curtail the right to praise and criticize specific politicians speak in a code -- advocating "stricter regulation of political activity by non-profit corporations," "disclosure of funding sources," "a ban on soft money," and so forth.
Behind this jargon, we recognize that their proposals would move the United States towards the speech-restrictive systems already in force in nations such as the United Kingdom, where politicians have greatly impeded the work of citizen advocacy groups by severely restricting the amount of money that can be spent to communicate with the public regarding the positions and voting records of specific officeholders and officeseekers. (Just last month, the European Court on Human Rights declared that the British law violates the civil rights of British citizens.) Such systems endow narrow political elites -- notably, those who own and produce the institutional news media -- with tremendous power to define and shape the public policy agenda.
Our organizations are strongly opposed to any legislation that would curtail the established First Amendment rights of citizen groups and political parties to engage in unrestricted speech about politicians, including any ban on so-called "soft money." Specifically, we jointly oppose:
* Any legislation that would seek to establish government monitoring, regulation, or rationing of "issue advocacy" communications, by which we mean communications that discuss politicians' positions on issues but do not contain words of "express advocacy" (that is, words that explicitly urge a vote for or against a specific candidate) for example, Congressman Gephardt's HR 2777.
* Any legislation or House rule change to ban so-called "soft money" -- a term that really refers to all funds that are not rationed and controlled by the federal government. Under the First Amendment, political parties currently enjoy the right to sponsor communications that discuss issues or the positions of office holders or officeseekers on those issues -- without being subjected to the rationing laws that apply to communications that contain explicit endorsements of candidates (i.e., "express advocacy"). Political parties would effectively lose this right if they are banned from raising non-rationed "soft money." Our organizations' right to engage in issue advocacy will become all the more precarious if the right of political parties has already been abridged.
* Any legislation that would impose so-called "disclosure" requirements on groups that sponsor issue advocacy communications merely because they include the names of elected officials or officeseekers, such as requirements that groups sponsoring such communications report their communications to the federal government (as required, for example, by Rep. Asa Hutchinson's HR 2183) and/or report to the government the names of individual donors.
* Any legislation to extend current legal restrictions on "coordination" (between an organization and a member of Congress or other "candidate") to cover "issue advocacy" communications. We believe that such restrictions constitutionally can be applied only to communications that contain words of express advocacy.
* Any legislation that would require groups, if they wish to communicate with the public about specific politicians, to thereby forfeit their rights to communicate with lawmakers or other candidates on public policy matters, or to forfeit other constitutional rights of association.
* Any legislation under which the government would seek to "compensate for" (i.e., nullify) independent political speech by granting or denying various benefits to specific candidates on the basis that they are deemed to have been favored or disfavored by issue advocacy or express advocacy communications.
* Any legislation (such as Mr. Hutchinson's HR 2183) or House rule change that would prohibit a Member of Congress from assisting a non-profit corporation in its fundraising or membership recruitment. Such a restriction violates our right of association, and also the rights of free association and freedom of speech of each Member of Congress.
Our organizations consider procedural or other votes to advance such legislation or rules changes as votes to restrict free speech about politicians.
National Right to Life Committee
American Civil Liberties Union
National Rifle Association of America
Americans for Tax Reform
Concerned Women for America
American Family Association
For further information on specific legislative proposals,
contact the NRLC Federal Legislative Office at
(202) 626-8820, fax (202) 347-3668, or go to www.nrlc.org/campaign.html