Congress Shall Make No Law...

The Federal Election Commission has been in many fights about free speech. But now it’s in a fight with free speech, or rather with “Free Speech,” the name taken by a group of three Wyoming residents who, represented by the Wyoming Liberty Group, yesterday filed a federal lawsuit against the FEC. And, for once, a case’s name—Free Speech v. FEC—reveals precisely what’s at stake.

 

The lawsuit focuses on an important, unresolved issue in campaign-finance law. Free Speech wants to engage in independent political speech, but cannot be sure whether or not its speech will trigger legal obligations that it register with the FEC and report information about its political activities. The group sought guidance from the FEC, but the law is so ambiguous that the FEC’s commissioners deadlocked, leaving Free Speech with no more information on how to comply with the law than it started with.

 

The legal issues in the case—which are detailed in Free Speech’s Complaint—are complicated. But the implications of this case could be profound. As economist Jeff Milyo of the University of Missouri detailed in Campaign Finance Red Tape, having to register as a political committee and deal with all of the associated legal requirements is a significant burden, particularly for small groups. A victory for Free Speech would remove many of these burdens and bring much-needed clarity to the law.

 

More information on the case, including case-filing documents, is available here.

In the hysteria that continues to surround the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, one often-overlooked fact is that, at the time Citizens United was decided, 26 states already allowed for-profit corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political advertising (the 24 that prohibited spending are listed here).  Many of these states also allowed corporations to make contributions directly to political candidates, and some, including Utah and Virginia, allowed unlimited corporate contributions directly to candidates.

 

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That’s right—despite predictions that the corporate spending unleashed by Citizens United posed a dire threat to the Republic, such spending was already the norm in a majority of states, and there is not the slightest evidence that those states were any worse for it.

 

This fact is worth keeping in mind now that 22 states and the District of Columbia have submitted an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to affirm the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling in the American Tradition Partnership case, which upheld Montana’s ban on corporate expenditures in clear defiance of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United.

 

The 22 states that signed the brief are:

 

Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

 

Of those states, however, only nine—Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and West Virginia—prohibited corporate expenditures before Citizens United.  The remaining 13 states and the District of Columbia not only permitted unlimited corporate expenditures, but also permitted corporations to make contributions directly to candidates (and recall that Utah actually permitted unlimited corporate contributions).

 

If one needed more evidence that much of the vitriol aimed at Citizens United is about scoring political points, and not about any principled opposition to that decision, this is it:  13 states signing onto a brief urging the reversal of a decision that had no effect on their laws.

Earlier this week the Huffington Post reported on a recent press conference in Washington, D.C., about efforts to amend the First Amendment to overturn Citizens United v. FEC. The headline read “Citizens United Amendment Urged By Grassroots, Federal Lawmakers.” In the story, U.S. Senator Tom Udall says, “We have developing here a grassroots movement.”

 

Who, exactly, are the “grassroots” to which they refer? According to the story, 14 people spoke at the press conference. Of the 14, 13 were elected officials; one was a private citizen.

 

In other words, approximately 93 percent of the people calling to overturn the decision were people currently in power—the very people who stand to benefit most from shutting down the independent political voices that Citizens United helped free. This was not the grassroots; at best, it was a grassroot (note the singular noun).

 

The make-up of the press conference tells us everything we know about the push to reverse Citizens United. Many elected officials—like those at this press conference—do not like other people’s free speech and they especially do not like it when critical speech is directed at them. If they succeed in amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United, these same officials could pass laws that would make it impossible for people to amass enough resources to challenge their actions, thus effectively immunizing themselves from criticism.

 

This “grassroot” press conference demonstrates that the debate over Citizens United is not about “corporate personhood,” “fighting oligarchy” or “defending democracy.” It is about the desire of those in power to ensure that they remain free from criticism and political challenge. That is a particularly poor justification to start editing freedoms out of the First Amendment.

Some readers of Make No Law may have seen a recent study released by the Center for Public Integrity concluding that New Jersey is the state with the lowest risk of corruption in the country.  Writing in The Wall Street Journal today, IJ Attorney Paul Sherman and University of Rochester Professor David Primo take a skeptical look at that study and uncover many problems:

new-jersey

 

For starters, the study never actually defines what it means by corruption. Instead, the risk of corruption is defined by the presence or absence of certain laws—such as strict campaign-finance limits and lobbying disclosure—that good-government groups promote. But without a working definition of corruption, it is impossible to determine whether these sorts of reforms are the appropriate remedy.

 

Is regulation of state insurance commissions, for example, as important as lobbying disclosure as a means to combat corruption? Who knows? The study gives equal weight to both. Yet that's like assuming aspirin is as good as a herbal supplement because some people think both can cure headaches.

 

Wall Street Journal subscribers can read the whole thing here.

Today is the two-year anniversary of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ unanimous ruling in SpeechNow.org v. FEC, holding that limits on the right of Americans to pool money to pay for independent political advertisements are unconstitutional. That ruling made possible the creation of so-called “super PACs,” which have played a major role in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries. The Institute for Justice is proud to have worked with the Center for Competitive Politics to represent the plaintiffs in SpeechNow.org, and is committed to defending that ruling in the courts of law and the court of public opinion.

 

More information:

 

IJ’s press release about anniversary

 

CCP’s press release

 

A brief history of super PACs

 

wisconsinYesterday the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a very anticlimactic decision in a challenge to one of the most speech-squelching laws in the country.  The court split 3-3 over whether Government Accountability Rule 1.28 violates the First Amendment and the Wisconsin Constitution by requiring everyone to register with the government who, in the 60 days before a general election, spends more than $25 and so much as mentions a candidate for office in a negative or positive light.  Three justices thought the rule was constitutional while the other three thought the case should not have been granted in the first place.  The case was an “original action,” meaning it was only ever before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, so the legal effect of the case is it’s as though it never happened.

 

We have commented on this case before, and the Institute for Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief (pdf) in the case last spring.

 

But, this isn’t the end of the story.  There are two pending federal court challenges to Rule 1.28 that have been frozen in carbonite since the Wisconsin Supreme Court accepted the case in late 2010.  Those lawsuits can now proceed, so stay tuned . . .

Readers of Make No Law may recall the case of Bluman v. FEC, a challenge to the federal law that prohibits noncitizens, even those who lawfully reside in the United States, from spending any money to influence state or federal elections. In January the U.S. Supreme Court summarily affirmed a lower-court ruling upholding the law.

 

The Institute for Justice had filed a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case and to strike down the law as it applied to aliens lawfully living in the United States. Our reasons for filing the brief were twofold. First, we believe that the First Amendment protects a preexisting natural right to engage in peaceful political speech and association—a right on which citizens and permanent residents hold no monopoly. Second, we knew that a victory for the government would be used in future cases to justify restrictions on U.S. citizens and, ultimately, to undermine the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Citizens United.

 

Less than two months after the Supreme Court’s summary affirmance in Bluman, that is precisely what we have seen. First came the Montana Supreme Court’s defiant ruling in Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Attorney General, which cited Bluman to argue that the Citizens United decision was a narrow, fact-bound ruling, rather than the broad repudiation of government censorship that it obviously was. And now we have this argument from the Federal Election Commission in Wagner v. FEC, a challenge to a federal ban on political contributions and expenditures by federal contractors:

 

Contrary to the plaintiffs’ suggestion that only concerns about corruption or its appearance can justify FECA restrictions . . . protecting the integrity of the federal government from improper outside influence has been deemed an adequate basis, by itself, to justify a complete ban on contributions by certain individuals. See Bluman v. FEC, 800 F. Supp. 2d 281, 292 (D.D.C. 2011) (upholding ban on foreign national contributions in 2 U.S.C. § 441e), aff’d, 132 S. Ct. 1087 (2012).

 

That the FEC would latch onto Bluman as a justification for censoring speech by U.S. citizens is not surprising— Bluman is one of the FEC’s few recent victories and, as the Supreme Court noted in Citizens United, the FEC’s “business is to censor.” And it still remains to be seen what will happen on the merits in both the Wagner case and Western Tradition Partnership (many are predicting that the Supreme Court will summarily overrule the Montana court’s ruling). But these cases demonstrate that whenever we make exceptions to the principles of free political speech and association that are enshrined in the First Amendment, proponents of speech restrictions will invariably try to expand those exceptions. That’s why IJ got involved in Bluman v. FEC and why we will continue to vigorously defend the Citizens United ruling going forward.

Over the weekend we blogged about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s statement regarding a stay issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock, the decision in which the Montana Supreme Court thumbed its nose at the ruling in Citizens United. Writing at the blog of the Center for Competitive Politics, friend of IJ Brad Smith has a great post taking down claims that Justice Ginsburg’s statement indicates that she is “ready to speak truth to power” when—as is widely expected—the Court takes the case. As Smith notes:

 

Justice Ginsburg is a member of the Supreme Court of the United States. She is power. Truth? What truth was there in her little Western Tradition Partnership concurrence? Didn’t she just offer an opinion, slandering both donors and candidates, without any facts at all?

 

Well said. The rest of Smith’s post is available here. And be sure to check out the rest of CCP’s blog, which provides consistently great coverage of campaign finance news from a pro-First Amendment perspective.

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