Federal Election Commission Agrees to Decide Rights of Independent Speech Groups

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · November 29, 2007

Arlington, Va.—The Federal Election Commission yesterday agreed to decide whether a new independent speech group may advocate for or against candidates free of contribution limits imposed on political committees under federal law. The Commission has 60 days to issue an “advisory opinion” responding to a request from SpeechNow.org and its lawyers with the Center for Competitive Politics and the Institute for Justice.

SpeechNow.org is a nonpartisan independent speech group that supports free speech and associational rights. It plans to speak out in support of candidates who favor free political speech and oppose those who back so-called campaign finance “reform” legislation that restricts the rights to speech and association.

The group, with a new form of organizational charter believed to be the only one of its kind in the nation, is completely independent of candidates and parties. In keeping with its mission to magnify the voices of individual citizens opposed to the erosion of political speech rights, SpeechNow.org will accept only individual, not corporate, contributions. Its charter bans donations to candidates and political parties.

The group wants to run TV ads supporting and opposing candidates on free speech issues during the 2008 election cycle—if the FEC agrees that SpeechNow.org’s operational plan complies with the law.

At issue is whether independent speech groups like SpeechNow.org must organize and register with the FEC as “political committees” and limit donations to $5,000. SpeechNow.org supporters are allowed to individually spend as much as they want advocating for or against candidates. However, the law is unclear as to whether two or more of them can work together advocating for free speech. The group has ads written, but needs the contributions supporters have pledged, contingent on clarification of the law by the FEC, for production and broadcast costs. The supporters cited in the FEC request each plan to donate more than $5,000.

“It’s common sense that if we can each speak separately without limits, then we should be able to join together and speak as a group,” said SpeechNow.org President David Keating. “I am hopeful the FEC will agree with our interpretation of the law so we can begin to liberate speech from the grip of politicians who have passed laws to preserve their power by squelching criticism.”

“SpeechNow.org and its supporters simply want to make their views about candidates known,” said Bradley Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics and former FEC chairman. “Regulatingcompletely independent groupsas political committees would be a radical extension of the law and a severe blow to free speech and association. If contributions to SpeechNow.org are limited, its members will lack the resources to be heard.”

CCP Vice-President Stephen M. Hoersting added, “SpeechNow.org’s leaders risk criminal fines and jail time if they accept the money already pledged to air the ads already written that urge voters to oppose candidates. No one should have to risk going to jail to exercise their constitutional rights.”

Imposing contribution limits would restrict SpeechNow.org’s ability to speak effectively—without any constitutional basis. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, preventing corruption is the only justification for limiting individuals’ political contributions, but because SpeechNow.org will never contribute to any candidate, is completely independent of candidates and parties, and refuses donations from corporations and labor unions, there is no risk of corruption.

IJ Senior Attorney Steve Simpson concluded, “Citizens must be free to join together, pool their resources and urge voters to vote for or against politicians. Speaking about candidates isn’t ‘corrupting;’ it is our constitutional right under the First Amendment.”