Most Americans probably assume they can gather with friends and neighbors to say whatever they want about politics to whoever is willing to listen. They presume that the First Amendment protects their right to get together and buy yard signs, publish newsletters, or pay for radio or TV ads urging people to vote for or against a candidate -- and to do so free of government interference.
Unfortunately, most Americans would be wrong. Today, when Americans band together and spend even small amounts of money to advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, they must submit to government regulation and limits on the funds they can raise. Because of these campaign finance laws, the presumption in favor of free speech rooted in the First Amendment has largely given way to a presumption of regulation.
The case of SpeechNow.org shows how far the pendulum has swung away from constitutionally protected political expression.
SpeechNow.org is an independent group of citizens spending their own money on their own speech. It does not accept corporate or union contributions, makes no donations to politicians or parties and does not coordinate its activities with them. Yet federal campaign finance laws still require this group to register with the federal government, meet extensive reporting requirements, and limit the size of contributions they can accept to an amount so small that meaningful participation becomes nearly impossible.
This past February, SpeechNow.org, represented by the Center for Competitive Politics and the Institute for Justice, sued the Federal Election Commission to have these restraints struck down under the First Amendment. SpeechNow.org v. FEC challenges the constitutionality of applying the Federal Election Campaign Act's requirements for political committees, including individual contribution limits, biennial aggregate contribution limits and burdensome registration and reporting requirements, on groups like SpeechNow.org and its supporters. The case will be heard by the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in the coming months.
Brad Smith is a former Federal Election Commissioner, current Center for Competitive Politics Chairman, and a Goldwater Institute Senior Fellow. Smith is also an attorney for SpeechNow.org and will discuss the case in Scottsdale this Friday at a Federalist Society Breakfast, details and registration available here.
Speechnow.org: Promoting the First Amendment
Institute for Justice: SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission