The Federal Election Commission today released a draft "advisory opinion" that would, if adopted, effectively silence SpeechNow.org, a new independent speech group that wishes to advocate for or against federal candidates on the basis of their support for free political speech.
The draft opinion asserts that SpeechNow.org and any similar groups must organize and register as "political committees" and may not accept contributions larger than $5,000 per person per calendar year. The opinion would for the first time explicitly extend the full array of federal campaign finance regulations to groups of individual citizens acting independently of candidates and parties without corporate or union support.
"This opinion would leave practically no room for Americans to exercise our First Amendment rights to join together and speak freely to other Americans about who to elect to office," said David Keating, president of SpeechNow.org.
The opinion would make it impossible for SpeechNow.org to raise enough money quickly enough to air TV ads during the 2008 election cycle. Supporters have pledged enough money for SpeechNow.org to begin its advocacy now, but each contribution is over the government limit.
"The FEC is now saying that any time two or more people pool their resources to support or oppose a federal candidate, they become a political committee subject to government regulations and limits," said Bradley Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics. "But it should be common sense that if individuals can speak without limit, so too can groups of individuals."
The FEC is scheduled to consider the draft opinion in an open meeting next Thursday, January 24, at 10 a.m. Because the commission currently lacks a quorum, it cannot officially adopt the opinion or approve SpeechNow.org’s operational plan by the legal deadline of January 28. Without approval, SpeechNow.org could later face penalties such as fines and jail time for its speech, and today’s opinion strongly suggests that the commission would rule against the group in an enforcement action.
"This opinion is a serious blow to the First Amendment rights of free speech and association, and it is a tragedy that a federal agency failed to take SpeechNow.org’s constitutional rights seriously," said Steve Simpson, Institute for Justice senior attorney. "Now facing the specter of fines and jail time, SpeechNow.org’s only recourse is the courts."
SpeechNow.org is a nonpartisan independent speech group with a new form of organizational charter designed to magnify the voices of individual citizens opposed to the erosion of political speech rights. Under that charter, SpeechNow.org will accept only individual, not corporate or union, contributions. The charter also bans donations to candidates and political parties and requires the disclosure of all donations and expenditures to the FEC within 48 hours of speech urging election or defeat of a federal candidate. The Institute for Justice and the Center for Competitive Politics represent SpeechNow.org.
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