Major First Amendment Victory: Federal Appeals Court Unanimously Strikes Down Limits on Political Speech
Arlington, Va.—Today, the federal courts ruled once again to expand free speech rights by striking down government-imposed restrictions on participation in political campaigns. Citizens’ groups have now been freed to speak out in elections thanks to a unanimous “en banc” ruling today by all nine active judges on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. This is the first major application of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which expanded the free speech rights of corporations and unions to participate in elections.
Holding that, under Citizens United, “the government has no anti-corruption interest in limiting contributions to an independent expenditure group,” Chief Judge David Sentelle, in an opinion joined by all eight other judges on the D.C. Circuit, struck down federal campaign finance laws that made it practically impossible for new and independent groups of individuals to join together and advocate for the election or defeat of political candidates.
“This is a tremendous victory for free speech,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Steve Simpson, who argued the case before the D.C. Circuit. “This decision ensures that all Americans can band together to make their voices heard during elections.”
The Institute for Justice (IJ) and the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) filed the First Amendment challenge to the laws in February 2008 on behalf of SpeechNow.org, a group of citizens that want to pool their money to run independent political ads for or against candidates based on their support for the First Amendment. SpeechNow.org accepts money only from individuals—not corporations or unions—and does not make any contributions to political candidates or parties.
Although lone individuals have long been permitted to spend unlimited amounts of money on independent political ads, two or more individuals who pool their money in order to do the exact same thing are considered “political committees” and are subject to a host of burdensome regulations, including limits on how much they may contribute to fund the group’s political speech.
David Keating, the president and treasurer of SpeechNow.org, said, “I started SpeechNow.org to give ordinary citizens a voice in politics. Thanks to this ruling, citizens’ groups across the country—no matter what issues they care about—finally have the freedom to hold politicians accountable.”
In the ruling, the Court held that limits on the amount of money SpeechNow.org could raise from its donors violated the First Amendment. Noting that the ruling in Citizens United “simplifies the task of weighing the First Amendment interests implicated by contributions to SpeechNow,” the court concluded that, “the First Amendment cannot be encroached upon for naught.”
“We are grateful that the court recognized the importance of the right of association in politics and speech,” said Stephen M. Hoersting, CCP’s vice president and co-counsel for SpeechNow.org. “The court affirmed that groups of passionate individuals, like billionaires—and corporations and unions after Citizens United—have the right to spend without limit to independently advocate for or against federal candidates.”
Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Bert Gall said, “Critics of the Citizens United ruling should applaud the decision in SpeechNow.org v. FEC, which guarantees individuals and unincorporated groups the same First Amendment right to fund effective speech that Citizens United guaranteed for corporations and unions.”
Unfortunately, although the court’s ruling frees SpeechNow.org to raise money and speak, the court upheld other burdensome requirements identical to those struck down in Citizens United. Gall said, “Laws that are unconstitutionally burdensome for General Motors and the AFL-CIO have to be unconstitutional when applied to a volunteer group like SpeechNow.org. The court’s ruling that SpeechNow.org must comply with political committee regulations is just flat wrong.”
Bradley A. Smith, CCP’s chairman and a former FEC chairman, added, “It’s unfortunate that the court did not recognize how political committee status regulation by the FEC places restrictive burdens on grassroots political groups. The court’s decision means that the FEC regulatory regime will continue to favor large, established special interests over ad hoc groups of like-minded citizens who gather together to enhance their voices in politics.”
Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, said, “With this ruling, the D.C. Circuit has moved us one step closer to ending this nation’s failed 35-year-old experiment with campaign finance ‘reform’ and restoring the First Amendment to its proper place. The era when incumbent politicians could tinker with freedom of speech to insulate themselves from public criticism is coming to an end.”
The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit, public interest law firm that defends free speech and other constitutional rights nationwide. The Center for Competitive Politics is a nonprofit organization formed to educate the public on the actual effects of money in politics, and the results of a more free and competitive electoral process.