Congress Shall Make No Law...

Republicans in Congress have responded to the apparent desire among voters for smaller government with a proposal to eliminate the public financing system for presidential elections. Our friends over at the Center for Competitive Politics present some very compelling reasons for ending the program. As they point out, doing so would save a minimum of $617 million over ten years on a program that, after President Obama declined funds in 2008, is unlikely to draw any interest among serious candidates in the future without a substantial increase in the program. Brad Smith estimates that the fund would need at least $750 million to entice candidates to participate, which is more than the budgets of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Consumer Products Safety Commission, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Holocaust Museum, and the FEC combined. Of course, unserious candidates seem to love public financing. As CCP points out, such luminaries as Alan Cranston of Keating Five fame, ex-Gov. Milton Schapp of Pennsylvania, who was later convicted of fraud, and perenial political gadfly Lyndon LaRouche have received financing under the program.


Another very good reason to eliminate the program is that the Constitution nowhere authorizes Congress to give taxpayer dollars to presidential candidates. Admittedly, we are in the minority in making this claim. In 1937, the Supreme Court regrettably upheld Congress’s power to spend money on anything deemed to serve the “general welfare,” and it later applied that reasoning specifically to the presidential public financing program in Buckley v. Valeo in 1976. But it’s never too late to get things right, and fortunately, the Constitution is on our side. (Toward that end, yesterday IJ launched the Center for Judicial Engagement, which is dedicated to demonstrating that the courts ought to take the Constitution, and, in particular, the limits on the size and scope of government, seriously. You can read more about it here.)


Finally, public financing of campaigns inevitably leads to restrictions or burdens on freedom of speech. For example, Arizona has set up a system that effectively punishes privately funded candidates and independent groups for spending more on their campaigns than their publicly funded opponents. The system is designed to force all candidates into the public system, where their spending is “leveled” and their voices equalized. The government has no place regulating speech in this way. IJ, along with the Goldwater Institute is challenging that system before the U.S. Supreme Court.


As Brad Smith says, “Congress should return to First Amendment first principles and create a doctrine of separation of campaign and state.” Politicians have been talking the limited government talk for months now. It’s time for them to walk the walk.

Today, Citizens United v. FEC turns one year old. That’s cause for celebration.


As readers of this blog know, in Citizens United the Supreme Court vindicated free-speech rights by holding that the First Amendment prevents the government from banning corporations from spending their money to express their views about candidates for office. The Court’s decision was an emphatic reminder that, under the First Amendment, the government may not censor political speech, no matter who is doing the speaking: “When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful.”


There will be time enough to document, rebut—and yes, laugh at—the continuing hysterical attacks on Citizens United by campaign finance “reformers.” But for now, I hope you’ll join Congress Shall Make No Law in celebrating Citizen United’s first birthday by changing your Facebook status to “Happy Birthday, Citizens United v. FEC.” And when you’re at happy hour this evening, please raise a glass to that decision’s robust defense of free speech.


Image source: Zellaby

9:18 PM

“People for the American Way” has released a deeply ridiculous video that purports to explain the impact of Citizens United.  The takeaway seems to be that the biggest beneficiaries of the Citizens United ruling are homophobes, anti-Semites and people who want to poison babies (seriously, we aren’t making this up).  Their solution?  Amend the Constitution to restrict free speech.




Even setting aside PFAW’s outrageous hyperbole, their calls to restrict speech should offend all Americans.  While PFAW positions itself as a defender of democracy, the entire premise underlying their video is that voters are too stupid to elect the “right” candidates if they are also permitted to listen to corporate speech.  And PFAW’s proposed “solution”—silencing disfavored speakers to “improve” democracy—is nothing more than what the U.S. Supreme Court correctly described as censorship for the purpose of thought control.


If you agree with the Supreme Court that “the First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves,” then make your voice heard by letting PFAW know what you think of their video.

At a time when proponents of stricter campaign finance regulations continually howl about the increasing costs of political campaigns, you would think that a grassroots political group would be applauded for trying to keep costs down.  But according to a Washington Post story released late last week, the organizers of a write-in campaign for former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty may soon be fined $18,500 for violating campaign finance laws.


Their crime?  Recycling.


It seems that the Save D.C. Now Committee “used unused campaign signs, leaflets and stickers to try to get voters to write in Fenty instead of supporting [Vincent] Gray.”  The materials were left over from Fenty’s unsuccessful primary campaign.


recycleGray’s campaign lawyer responded by filing a campaign finance complaint against the group.  “They alleged that campaign finance laws forbid a political community [sic] from using materials paid for by another.”


Regardless of the legal merit of these allegations, this is yet another example of how campaign finance laws—ostensibly passed to limit the “corrupting” influence of big money on politics—make genuine grassroots political campaigning virtually impossible.  The Save D.C. Now Committee raised a grand total of $7,000.  They are now being fined more than twice that, and for what?  For not letting perfectly usable political signs and stickers go into the garbage.


The Office of Campaign Finance still has an opportunity to reverse this ridiculous fine.  Here’s hoping they do.


Image source: TheTruthAbout

Linda Greenhouse uses the occasion of congressional Republicans reading the Constitution on the House floor to take a jab at the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC and the constitutional fidelity of its supporters.  Says Greenhouse:


It was just last January, in the Citizens United case, that the court granted corporations a robust First Amendment right, as citizens, to spend money in support of or against candidates in federal elections.


House Republicans could read the Constitution every day between now and July 4 without finding a word about corporate citizenship. Funny, but it just doesn’t seem to be there.  Call it a problem of democracy.


This critique turns the Constitution on its head.  It should surprise no one that the Constitution does not explicitly address the right of citizens to speak through the corporate form.  Indeed, the genius of our constitutional system is that it makes such an explicit statement unnecessary, because the rights we enjoy as Americans are numerous and indefinite, while the powers of Congress are limited and enumerated.


We_the_peopleFor those who complain that Citizens United lacks a basis in the text of the Constitution, we ask, “What is the textual foundation for Congress’ power to ban independent corporate speech?”  One could, after all, read the First Amendment every day between now and July 4 without finding a single exception to the plain command that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.”  One could also scrutinize Article I of the Constitution—which establishes the powers of Congress—in search of an enumerated power that grants Congress the authority to regulate the independent speech of any group of people, but this search too will turn up nothing.


If anyone is ignoring the text of the Constitution, it is the opponents of Citizens United.  A faithful reading of that text makes clear that Congress lacks the authority to restrict political speech, whatever the source.


Image source: Roberthuffstutter

Check out my colleague Bill Maurer's guest column in the Seattle Times warning the Washington State Legislature not to convert a political scandal into speech-squelching legislation.

Will the new Congress respect free speech, or will its members act like they went to Camp Politics?  Below, check out IJ’s new video of bonus footage not seen in its original Camp Politics video, which explained how politicians learn how to circumvent the First Amendment with campaign finance laws.


More Lessons From Camp Politics

Will the new Congress respect free speech, or will its members act like they went to Camp Politics?  Below, check out IJ’s new video of bonus footage not seen in its original Camp Politics video, which explained how politicians learn how to circumvent the First Amendment with campaign finance laws.

[Embed of new video here].  

More Lessons From Camp Politics


Will the new Congress respect free speech, or will its members act like they went to Camp Politics?  Below, check out IJ’s new video of bonus footage not seen in its original Camp Politics video, which explained how politicians learn how to circumvent the First Amendment with campaign finance laws.


[Embed of new video here].  

wisccheeseThings keep happening to the right to speak in Wisconsin.  It is hard for anyone to keep up with what you can, or cannot, say in the Cheesehead state.*


First a quick recap.  As we have discussed several times before at (here, here, and here), last summer the Wisconsin Governmental Accountability Board issued an outlandish rule that, among other things, requires anyone who spends more than $25 on criticizing or praising a candidate within 60 days of an election to report that spending to the government.  So if you buy a $26 sweatshirt that says “I ♥ Mary Smith” and Mary Smith is running for office, and you don’t report that spending, you break the law.


Earlier this month the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to hear a legal challenge to the new rule.  That challenge applies to the reporting requirement on criticism and praise of candidates, but also to other censorship provisions in the new rule, such as extending reporting requirements to money spent on emails.


Faced with the Wisconsin Supremes agreeing to hear the case—and the likelihood they will strike the rule down—the Governmental Accountability Board has now amended the rule to no longer apply to mere criticism or praise of candidates.


Of course, this obviously is an attempt to avoid the legal challenge.  It is not even a real change as it is a temporary “emergency rule” and the old provision could be reinstated when the challenge is over.


More importantly, the change only happened because citizens fought back with the means to challenge the rule in court.  Without these challenges the Board would have marched forward with its attempt to criminalize all manner of citizen speech.


This is important to remember when looking at campaign finance laws as a whole.  If people do not challenge how the government regulates speech the government inexorably will censor it.  There are thousands of campaign finance laws in every jurisdiction of the country, many of which are never challenged in court, and many of which nevertheless go on to intimidate citizens into silence.  Thus the more challenges people bring, and the more light they shine on the censors’ practices, the less likely we will end up with rules like the one in Wisconsin.


*As a proud alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I think I get to use this term.