Communications Department

NRLC Response to Letter from 15 U.S. House Members Objecting to NRLC Position on Shays-Meehan Bill

Jun 9, 1999 | Free Speech Issues

On May 27, 1999, Reps. Ronnie Shows (D-Ms.), Zach Wamp (R-Tn.), and 13 other U.S. House members wrote to NRLC to object to NRLC’s intention to include one or more votes on the Shays-Meehan bill in NRLC’s “scorecard” of key congressional votes for 1999. “In deciding to score roll calls on such debatable issues as the Shays-Meehan bill, NRLC is saying, in effect, that the only way one can be truly pro-life is to have a certain opinion about campaign finance,” said the letter. NRLC’s response, dated June 9, 1999, appears below.

The Honorable Ronnie Shows
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515

RE: NRLC’s Position on the Shays-Meehan bill

Dear Congressman Shows:

This is in response to your letter of May 27 (co-signed by 14 of your colleagues), referring to “NRLC’s foray into campaign reform,” characterizing that issue as “unrelated to the protection of human life,” and urging that NRLC refrain from including votes on the Shays-Meehan bill in its scorecard of key votes for the current Congress.

There are many issues and bills involving the financing of candidates’ campaigns and other election law matters on which NRLC has taken no position whatever. However, much of what is currently being marketed as “campaign finance reform” B including numerous provisions of the Shays-Meehan bill B are actually attempts to restrict not the campaigns of candidates, but the right of citizen groups (such as NRLC and its affiliates) to communicate effectively with the public regarding the actions or prospective actions of elected officials. The exercise of that right has been central to pro-life successes in the legislative and political realms.

For the reasons summarized below — documented in much greater detail elsewhere — NRLC does not agree with your assertion that this is an issue “unrelated to the protection of human life.” Experience has taught us otherwise. Since NRLC knows from experience that restrictions such as those contained in the Shays-Meehan bill would have a terrible effect on the ability of NRLC and its affiliates to advance pro-life public policies. NRLC would be unfaithful to its own mission, and in our view to the innocent human beings we seek to defend, if we fail to act to protect the essential tools of the pro-life cause.

Therefore, we respectfully reject your contention that NRLC is being needlessly divisive by vigorously opposing such legislation. If anything is divisive, it is the ongoing efforts of certain lawmakers and organizations to grossly infringe on the free-speech rights of our affiliates and our members, under the rubric of “campaign reform.”

NRLC has taken great pains to be precise, accurate, and detailed in its characterizations of the Shays-Meehan bill, the McCain-Feingold bill, and various other bills that would directly impact on our organization and our cause. In your letter, you stated, “NRLC is saying, in effect, that the only way one can be truly pro-life is to have a certain opinion about campaign finance.” In fact, however, NRLC has never said that anyone who votes for Shays-Meehan is not “pro-life” B but we have said, and will continue to say, that anyone who votes for Shays-Meehan is voting for a bill that would do great harm to the pro-life cause.

Impact of Bill on Pro-Life Movement: NRLC’s Experience With Speech Restrictions

You are mistaken in suggesting that NRLC is engaged in a “foray” into an area of public policy outside of our usual purview. In reality, this is not a new issue for NRLC, nor a merely hypothetical concern. As the national federation of state and local right-to-life organizations, NRLC and its affiliates have been forced to fight many court battles over the past 15 years and more in order to defeat attempts by many politicians and political appointees to suppress dissemination of materials that explain and comment on the positions or voting records of specific political figures on right-to-life issues. If you examined the long list of federal court decisions invalidating various attempts (by the FEC and various states) to restrict citizen groups’ speech about political figures, you would find that in many of these cases the groups challenging the restrictions were NRLC affiliates.

NRLC has fought these speech-suppression attempts so often and so effectively that our general counsel, James Bopp, Jr., now is regarded by many as the nation’s pre-eminent litigator of First Amendment election-law issues. Nevertheless, the cost in money and in suppressed pro-life speech has been great.

At the federal level, in recent years “campaign reform” legislation instigated by special-interest groups such as Common Cause has become increasingly focused on impeding commentary on political figures by citizen groups such as NRLC and NRLC affiliates. As a consequence, NRLC included key votes on such speech-restrictive measures in its scorecards for 1996 and for 1997-98. The current version of the Shays-Meehan bill is a veritable scrapbook of the types of speech-restrictions that NRLC has fought for over 15 years. If there is a vote on this bill or any other measure that would be so crippling to our work and that of our affiliates, you may be sure that it will once again be included in our scorecard.

Special Importance to Pro-Life Movement

It is NRLC’s very considered judgment that restrictions such as those contained in the Shays-Meehan bill could cripple the pro-life movement in the United States. The bill contains multiple provisions that would place sweeping restrictions on the right of private citizen groups to communicate with both elected officeholders and with the general public regarding the positions and voting records of individual, named members of Congress and candidates on right-to-life issues (or indeed, on any issue) – – not only immediately before elections, but at any time of any year. These restrictions would apply to, among other things, communications regarding upcoming votes in Congress. The restrictions would fall with greatest force on the very backbone of the right-to-life movement B local groups, made up of volunteer citizen-activists. NRLC’s special objections to HR 417 are detailed in “An Analysis of the Speech-Restriction Provisions of the Shays-Meehan Bill,” Feb. 25, 1999, previously provided to your office.

For some other types of issue-advocacy groups, such restrictions might not be as crippling, because the institutional news media would continue to provide the public with detailed, accurate information about the actions or inactions of specific officeholders or would-be officeholders on the issues of concern to them. But in general, that is certainly not the case with respect to abortion or other right-to-life issues, which most of the institutional news media treat with strong ideological filters adverse to our viewpoint. To the degree that the Right to Life movement has achieved political and legislative successes, it has been (1) despite the general bias of the institutional news media, and (2) largely dependent on our ability to speak to the public directly, when and where we see fit, regarding the actions of those who hold or seek public office.

Indeed, based on our experience in the United States and our observations of the situation elsewhere, if American citizen groups’ communications to the public had been restricted over the past 25 years in the ways proposed in the Shays-Meehan bill and similar legislation, abortion might not be anything like the major public policy issue that it is today. As you are well aware, ever since the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade in 1973 there have been many attempts by various political elites, including major elements of the institutional news media, to declare that abortion is a “settled” issue. But efforts to impose such a false “consensus” have failed in this nation — in large part because groups like NRLC have been free to transmit to the public very specific information about individual lawmakers’ positions and votes.

The Experience of Pro-Life Groups Outside the U.S.

Our analysis is reinforced by the experience of pro-life groups in some other so-called “liberal democracies” that are governed by parliaments elected under laws that severely restrict spending on communications that criticize or otherwise comment on the actions of specific politicians. Such laws give the leaders of political parties, and those who control the institutional news media, extraordinary power to exclude undesired issues, such as abortion, from the political realm. Such restrictions have prevented pro-life citizens in those countries from holding their elected legislators accountable for their actions on right-to-life issues, as they have been held accountable in the United States B to the grave detriment of the pro-life movements in those nations.

For example, the pro-life movement in the United Kingdom has long been severely impeded by laws that essentially prohibited spending money to disseminate legislators’ voting records. One such law, the 1983 “Representation of the People Act,” banned spending more than 5 pounds on “advertisements, circulars or publications; or of otherwise presenting to the electors the candidate or his views.” The British government has repeatedly prosecuted and fined the leader of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) for violating this law by daring to disseminate literature describing how specific members of Parliament had voted on abortion and fetal experimentation. When asked by the European Court on Human Rights to justify one such prosecution, the British government told the court that the law was necessary “to ensure that candidates remain independent of the influence of powerful interest groups” and to prevent “the political debate at election times from being distorted by having the discussion shifted away from matters of general concern to centre on single issues.” These justifications echo those of many supporters of the Shays-Meehan bill and other proposals to restrict the free speech rights of citizen groups in the U.S.

Political Action

While your letter does not directly raise the question, we have received questions about what weight NRLC’s political action committee (NRL-PAC) has given or will give to this issue. For the reasons outlined above, a political figure’s position or record on the preservation of NRLC’s free-speech rights will be treated as one substantial factor in evaluating his or her candidacy for election, re-election, or election to higher office. It is most likely to become a decisive factor in cases in which a pro-life candidate who supports restricting NRLC’s free-speech rights finds himself in a race against another candidate, equally pro-life, who also supports protection of the free-speech rights of NRLC and its affiliates. In that circumstance, the need to preserve our right to speak effectively to the public may tip the balance to the latter candidate B even if he is challenging an incumbent.

One such situation occurred in the 1998 general election. Congressman Stenholm, who opposes abortion and assisted suicide, co-sponsored and co-directed a discharge campaign effort on behalf of a bill (HR 1366, 105th Congress) under which (1) no federal, state, or local pro-life organization (other than a federal PAC) would have been allowed to mention the name of a member of Congress, in print or broadcast communications, for six months out of any even-numbered year, and (2) even a federal PAC would have been limited to spending $25,000 in any given district (i.e., less than the cost of one mailing to registered voters or a single full-page newspaper ad in many districts). Among its other effects, this bill would have virtually ended effective pro-life grassroots lobbying campaigns on behalf of important pro-life legislation pending in Congress, during even-numbered years. Mr. Stenholm’s challenger, Mr. Izzard, was equally opposed to abortion and euthanasia, and also pledged to preserve the legal right of Right to Life groups (and others) to utter his name to the public in print and broadcast communications. NRL-PAC therefore supported Mr. Izzard.

We have never denigrated Mr. Stenholm’s sincerity on the abortion issue, but regrettably he has chosen to become an energetic advocate for legislation that poses a grave threat to our grassroots lobbying campaigns, to our affiliates, and to our cause. It is NRLC’s sober evaluation of how an elected official’s votes and other actions on actual legislation will advance or retard the pro-life public policy agenda B not the labels that some chose to apply to such legislation B that will guide NRL-PAC’s judgments.


For the reasons outlined above, whichever way a Member votes on the Shays-Meehan bill will be promptly reported to NRLC’s members and affiliates, with an accurate characterization of the implications of the bill for NRLC, NRLC affiliates, and the entire pro-life cause. Moreover, the Shays-Meehan vote(s) will be included in NRLC’s scorecard of key votes for 1999 B again, with an accurate characterization of the significance of the vote for NRLC, NRLC affiliates, and the public policies that our members seek to advance.

As in the past, we are ready and eager to meet with any interested Members or staff to discuss any component of our analysis of the bill and its impact on NRLC, NRLC affiliates, and the right-to-life public policy agenda. But such discussions are most likely to be fruitful when they focus on the substance of actual legislative provisions and on NRLC’s experience with similar restrictions in the past.


David N. O’Steen, Ph.D.
Executive Director

Douglas Johnson
Legislative Director

Carol Long Tobias
PAC Director


Categories: Free Speech Issues