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.
Yesterday 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.
The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously stayed the decision of the Montana Supreme Court in American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock, in which the Montana court explicitly thumbed its nose at the U.S. Supreme Court and the Citizens United decision. The stay itself is not surprising—most assumed that the Court would stay the Montana court’s version of jury nullification and many expect the Supreme Court to summarily reverse the lower court.
What is surprising, however, is the separate statement of Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Breyer (notably, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan did not join the separate statement). Justice Ginsburg urges the Court to grant certiorari and reexamine the Court’s conclusion in Citizens United that independent expenditures do not cause corruption “in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiances.”
What a cynical and insulting way to describe the activities of Americans, like IJ clients SpeechNow.org and David Keating, who use their resources to attempt to persuade their fellow citizens of the wisdom of their political view.
Interestingly, Justice Ginsburg cites no source for this remarkable accusation and it is not clear if she means that all expenditures are designed to “buy candidates’ allegiances” or just some. Regardless, if Justice Ginsburg believes that people spend money in elections “to buy candidates’ allegiances” and not to persuade others that their political view is correct, then her view that the government should be able to throw people in prison for producing a film or book about politics finally makes sense. Fortunately, other justices on the Court have, for now, more respect for American voters, candidates, and political activists that Justices Ginsburg and Breyer.
Perennial campaign-finance scold Fred Wertheimer from Democracy 21 has never seen a speech restriction he didn’t like. So it comes as no surprise that Wertheimer recently published an opinion piece on CNN.com declaring the Super PACs are, in his words, “a disaster for democracy” and an “unmitigated disaster.” Why? Well, because Super PACs let certain people speak more than Wertheimer likes. So his proposed answer is to resurrect the long-deadDISCLOSE Actfrom the grave in order to get those disfavored speakers to shut up.
In its most-recent incarnation, the DISCLOSE Act would force independent groups—whose speech does not raise any specter of corruption—to list their top five contributors in each advertisement. And it would require the head of those groups to appear on camera and say that their organization approved the message. If those provisions seem pointless because 1) Super PACs already disclose the identity of their contributors and 2) the group wouldn’t have put out the advertisement unless it agreed with its message, you’re right. The dirty secret of this DISCLOSE Act, like its predecessor, is that it’s not about information; it’s about chilling speech. As my colleague Paul Sherman previously noted, “For the reform lobby, the fact that some groups might stop speaking rather than comply with these new burdens is a feature, not a bug.”
The chance that this newest speech-squelching legislation will become law is between slim and none, and slim just left town. That’s a good thing; although Wertheimer complains that Super PACs let “a relatively few super-rich individuals and other wealthy interests to have greatly magnified and undue influence over the results of our elections,” that view betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how elections actually work.
The speech police see voters as empty vessels that candidates and groups can hoodwink and manipulate. That condescending view of the American electorate, however, is just plain wrong. Instead, the whole purpose of political campaigns is persuasion. Candidates and groups can only present information and arguments to the public. It is ultimately the voter who weighs that information and decides whom to cast a ballot for. Super PACs help improve democracy by giving voters another source of information to consider.
It’s odd to say that people can be made better off by limiting the voices they can hear from and consider, but that’s the argument that Wertheimer and his ilk make. Fortunately for Americans, “[t]he First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves” and to hear from everyone, Super PACs included.
In the world of public interest law, nothing is possible without clients who are willing to stand up for their rights against overwhelming odds. The Institute for Justice and the Center for Competitive Politics were privileged to have two such clients in Edward Crane and David Keating.
Crane and Keating have a long history of fighting for free speech against burdensome campaign finance laws. Crane, the president of the Cato Institute, was one of the plaintiffs in Buckley v. Valeo, the seminal 1976 decision that struck down major portions of the Federal Election Campaign Act. And Keating, who has long had to navigate campaign finance laws as executive director of the Club for Growth, has recently been named president of the Center for Competitive Politics.
Back in 2008, Crane, Keating and others teamed up to form SpeechNow.org, a group that wanted to raise and spend money to promote or oppose candidates based on their support for the First Amendment. Federal law prohibited them from doing so, so SpeechNow.org and its donors—represented by IJ and CCP—filed suit against the Federal Election Commission. The result was SpeechNow.org v. FEC, in which the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously held that individuals and groups have a First Amendment right to pool unlimited amounts of money to spend on independent political speech. That ruling led directly to the creation of so-called “Super PACs.”
Now, writing in The Wall Street Journal, Crane and Keating are stepping up to defend the results of that decision and the power it gives to grassroots groups to educate voters:
[I]n Buckley [v. Valeo] the court ruled that individuals could spend unlimited amounts to support a federal candidate if those expenditures were not coordinated with the candidate's campaign. SpeechNow.org went further. It held that the First Amendment allows two, or four, or 400 or more individuals to pool their resources and exercise the same right to make independent expenditures that one individual could make under Buckley. Hence, Super PACs.
Money is a proxy for information in campaigns. Yet Americans spend as much on potato chips as they do on all federal elections ($3.6 billion in 2010). Maybe that partly explains why most Americans cannot name their congressman, much less say where he or she stands on the issues.
That's why we believe Super PACs are a good thing. In the recent Republican South Carolina primary, Super PACs reportedly outspent the candidates' campaigns by two to one. That means more information was available on the candidates and more interest in the campaigns has been generated. It could be argued that Super PACS are the reason the GOP primary campaign this year is a horse race and not a coronation.
Subscribers to the Journal can read the whole thing here.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Joel Connelly has a column bemoaning how political campaigns in America are conducted and laying the blame for what he sees as the poor state of things at the feet of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Citizens United decision. Almost everything he says in the article is wrong—even if one were to put aside his unsourced statement that one Super PAC has received $50 billion in contributions. (This would be quite the accomplishment as the total amount of political spending in all elections in 2012 at the federal, state, and local level is expected to be $5 billion.) Moreover, I do not recall him filing any stories about how well politics functioned when McCain-Feingold was robustly throttling political speech in the days prior to Citizens United.
Coincidentally, Connelly’s piece came out the same day that Dan Abrams takes his fellow journalists to task for not understanding what Citizens United said and distorting its impact on elections. Abrams is no fan of the decision, but he does have an insight into the case that others do not: His father Floyd represented Mitch McConnell in the case. His insight leads him to take on those, like Connelly, that regurgitate what they hear others say about the case, regardless of whether it is accurate or not. His piece could have been written in response to Connelly’s column, but sadly, columns like Connelly’s have become the standard media analysis of the decision, not the exception.