IJ on Wisconsin Right to Life

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · April 24, 2007

Arlington, Va. – Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, a case that challenges a federal ban on broadcast advertisements funded by corporations—including non-profits—that mention a candidate’s name within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election. The Institute for Justice, which defends ordinary Americans caught up in senseless campaign finance regulations simply for speaking their minds about politics, filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Court to side with WRTL and strike down the federal speech ban.

“The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to petition their government and speak out about important issues,” said Chip Mellor, IJ president and general counsel. “Americans cannot be expected to hold their tongues until politicians decide it is convenient for them to listen.”

The brief, authored by Erik Jaffe, a noted campaign finance expert, and also joined by the Cato Institute, the Center for Competitive Politics, the Reason Foundation and the Individual Rights Foundation, argues that this case presents a “virtually ‘perfect storm’ of First Amendment activity, involving speech, association, and petitioning. . . . . The past thirty years of campaign finance jurisprudence has pushed us a long way down a slippery slope to destroying such freedoms. . . . [I]t is time to put the brakes on any further restriction of core political speech.”

Tellingly, a group of politicians, including Senator John McCain, intervened in the case in support of the governments’ position and argued that many grassroots lobbying ads often contain veiled attacks on politicians running for office.

“Protecting the right to criticize the government is the whole point of the First Amendment,” said Steve Simpson, an IJ senior attorney. “This law is censorship, pure and simple. The government is telling groups that they may not inform the public about what candidates are doing during an election—precisely when those candidates are most likely to listen. Today the law limits speech broadcast over the airwaves. Tomorrow it will be speech published in print, and after that, web-based speech and everything else.”

Indeed, three of IJ’s cases show how far the trend toward regulating political speech has gone, not just at the federal level, but also in the states. State regulations on speech about ballot issues have caught ordinary citizens up in needless litigation, including:

  • Neighbors in the tiny neighborhood of Parker North, Colo., who banded together to fight annexation to a nearby town.
  • An initiative campaign in Washington state prosecuted for not reporting favorable comments from talk-radio hosts as “in-kind” contributions.
  • A non-profit think tank in Colorado that spoke out against two referenda campaigns.