Arlington, Va.—In the next landmark case challenging campaign finance restrictions after the historic Citizens United decision, the Institute for Justice and the Center for Competitive Politics today are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a case challenging federal laws that impose enormous burdens on grassroots groups that simply want to speak out in elections.
SpeechNow.org is a group of citizens who want to defend free speech at the ballot box by running ads that oppose candidates who do not support First Amendment rights. But under federal law, if the group spends more than a small amount of money on ads that call for the election or defeat of political candidates, it must register with the government as a political action committee or “PAC” and be subjected to a host of burdensome regulations before speaking.
SpeechNow.org, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ) and the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP), filed its lawsuit in February 2008, arguing that the campaign finance laws that apply to PACs could not constitutionally apply to a group that simply engages in independent political speech—speech that is not coordinated with any political candidates. After more than two years of litigation, in March 2010, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a unanimous, nine-judge decision holding that SpeechNow.org could accept unlimited donations to fund its political ads. Unfortunately, the court also held that if SpeechNow.org chose to speak out it would have to register with the government as a PAC.
IJ Senior Attorney Steve Simpson said, “If the First Amendment means anything, it means that groups of ordinary citizens should be allowed to speak out in elections without having to first register with the government or hire lawyers and accountants to help them navigate complicated campaign finance laws. We are asking the Supreme Court to reverse that part of the D.C. Circuit’s ruling, which makes it virtually impossible for small, ad hoc groups of citizens to spontaneously add their voices to the political debate.”
The D.C. Circuit’s ruling is in direct conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which freed corporations and unions to speak in elections without having to first create a PAC. As the Court recognized in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, “PACs are burdensome alternatives; they are expensive to administer and subject to extensive regulations.” The Court held that requiring a group to speak through a PAC amounts to an unconstitutional “ban on speech.”
As David Keating, the President of SpeechNow.org said, “The Supreme Court held in Citizens United that these exact same requirements are too burdensome for corporations like General Motors and unions like the AFL-CIO. If large, wealthy organizations like those can’t be expected to comply with these laws, groups of ordinary citizens like SpeechNow.org should have that same freedom.”
Former FEC Commissioner and CCP Chairman Bradley Smith added, “In the wake of Citizens United, it is vitally important that the Supreme Court take up this case. Groups of ordinary citizens deserve the same First Amendment protections given to corporations and unions. This case will give the Supreme Court a chance to ensure that politics doesn’t become a game for political insiders.”