SpeechNow.org Files Lawsuit To Protect Americans’ Rights To Organize and Speak About Politics

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · February 14, 2008

Arlington, Va.—SpeechNow.org is a new group of citizens formed to protect the First Amendment at the ballot box on Election Day 2008 and beyond. But before it can advocate for or against candidates based on their stand on free speech, it must go to court to secure its own First Amendment rights.

Represented by the Institute for Justice and the Center for Competitive Politics, SpeechNow.org, along with members and supporters, will file a federal lawsuit today challenging the campaign finance law that requires SpeechNow.org to become a “political committee” in order to advocate for or against candidates. So that SpeechNow.org can begin its advocacy as soon as possible, IJ and CCP will request a preliminary injunction and ask that an expedited hearing on that request be scheduled within 20 days.

Federal law and the Federal Election Commission forbid anyone from giving SpeechNow.org more than $5,000 per year and impose a host of complicated rules on the group. These limits and red tape make it virtually impossible for new independent speech groups like SpeechNow.org to raise start-up funding and effectively reach voters.

They are also unconstitutional for a group like SpeechNow.org. SpeechNow.org is not a PAC or a political party, it takes no corporate or union money—only individual contributions—and it will never donate to or coordinate with candidates or political parties. It is simply Americans talking to Americans about an issue of vital public importance: the right to speak freely about politics and whom to elect to secure it.

“The First Amendment guarantees individuals the right to speak without limit, so it should be common sense that groups of individuals have the same rights,” said Steve Simpson, an Institute for Justice senior attorney. “No one should have to sacrifice the First Amendment right to associate in order to exercise the First Amendment right to speak, but that is exactly what requiring SpeechNow.org to become a political committee would force its members to do.”

SpeechNow.org wants to advocate the election of federal candidates who favor free speech and the defeat of those who favor speech restrictions in the name of campaign finance “reform.” The group has ad scripts written but needs the seed funding of initial supporters who have pledged more than $5,000 each for production and broadcast costs.

If forced to follow the government limits and red tape required of political committees, SpeechNow.org will be silenced.

“As individuals, we can’t affect elections or policies, and that’s why Americans must be free to join together, pool our resources, and advocate for federal candidates who agree with us and against those who do not,” said SpeechNow.org President David Keating. “The whole point of political speech is to influence elections—to convince fellow citizens that on important issues, some candidates are better than others. That is a fundamental American right.”

SpeechNow.org aims to give citizens of modest means a stronger voice in elections. For example, both Brad Russo and Scott Burkhardt believe in the mission of SpeechNow.org and want to support it financially, but lack the resources of wealthier donors. But SpeechNow.org can pool their limited resources with larger contributions to reach a broader audience. Together, all of SpeechNow.org’s supporters can speak more effectively than any could alone.

This model of independent political advocacy can be applied to any issue or set of issues a group of citizens cares about, such as the environment, health care or taxes.

“Freeing SpeechNow.org would pave the way for other groups of citizens to make their voices heard in elections—without being hamstrung by harmful government limits on speech,” said Bradley Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics and a former FEC chairman. “Right now, those regulations favor the political establishment by imposing drastic limits and needless red tape on new independent groups.”

“If SpeechNow.org is silenced, it would be practically impossible for Americans to join together and speak effectively to other Americans about whom to elect to office,” added Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice. “It would be clear that so-called ‘campaign finance’ regulations are really ‘speech and association’ regulations.”

IJ and CCP represent SpeechNow.org, as well as five of its individual members and supporters: David Keating, Ed Crane, Fred Young, Brad Russo and Scott Burkhardt. IJ and CCP will file SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission in the federal district court for the District of Columbia.

The Institute for Justice is a non-profit, public interest law firm that defends free speech and other constitutional rights nationwide. The Center for Competitive Politics is a non-profit 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.