In the next landmark case challenging campaign finance restrictions after the historic Citizens United decision, the Institute for Justice and the Center for Competitive Politics today filed a petition (.pdf) with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to review a case challenging federal laws that impose enormous burdens on grassroots groups that simply want to speak out in elections. The case is SpeechNow.org v. FEC.
SpeechNow.org is a group of citizens who want to defend free speech at the ballot box by running ads that oppose candidates who do not support First Amendment rights. But under federal law, if the group decides to spend most of its funds on ads that call for the election or defeat of political candidates, it must register with the government as a political committee or “PAC” and be subjected to a host of burdensome regulations before speaking.
Earlier this year the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC (.pdf) that the same regulations that apply to SpeechNow.org are too burdensome for corporations to comply with. As Justice Anthony Kennedy put it, “PACs are burdensome alternatives; they are expensive to administer and subject to extensive regulations.” The Court went on to hold that requiring a group to speak through a PAC amounts to an unconstitutional “ban on speech.”
Unfortunately, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held (.pdf) that the government could force SpeechNow.org, an unincorporated nonprofit association, to comply with these burdensome regulations just to speak. IJ and CCP are asking the Supreme Court to reverse that portion of the D.C. Circuit’s ruling.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United was crystal clear: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” Large corporations and unions can now spend as much as they want on political speech. The First Amendment requires nothing less. But it also requires that groups of ordinary citizens like SpeechNow.org have that same freedom.