WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union today denounced as unconstitutional the campaign finance legislation being finalized by the Senate and said the measure represents an across-the-board attack on political freedom in America.
"The bill approved today fills reelection coffers for incumbents and silences grassroots and issues organizations," said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU's Washington National Office. "It goes a long way toward guaranteeing that candidates will control everything that is said about them and should more properly be called the "Incumbent Guaranteed Reelection Act of 2001."
Murphy said that the legislation, which is expected to be adopted on Monday, has actually been made significantly more unconstitutional during the two weeks of debate and voting in the Senate. The ACLU believed that the original bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-AZ, and Russ Feingold, D-WI, contained several unconstitutional provisions, including limits on issue advocacy by nonpartisan groups.
But during the two weeks of debate, Murphy said, Senators voted to add an additional restriction on political speech, such as an amendment offered by Sens. Paul Wellstone, D-MN, that expands a prohibition on nonpartisan group issue advertisements within 60 days of a general election, which is exactly the time when the electorate is paying the most attention.
"It is laughable to call this bill reform," Murphy said. "If this bill becomes law, the only parties the government will allow to talk about a politician's record will be the politician, political action committees and the press. All others will be gagged."
In contrast to the limits-driven approach of McCain-Feingold, the ACLU said the Senate could have taken many steps to encourage political speech in this country without running afoul of the First Amendment. These include public financing for campaigns and establishing vouchers for discount broadcast and print election ads.
Joel M. Gora, a Professor at Brooklyn Law School and longtime ACLU consultant on campaign finance issues, said that by restricting so-called soft money contributions to political parties, the legislation would also make it virtually impossible for political parties to engage in all forms of grassroots political activities, such as get-out-the-vote efforts, voter registration drives, voter education, candidate recruitment and development and issue development by depriving them of the funding that has sustained such activities.
"This unprecedented government regulation of political speech flies in the face of 25 years of court decisions protecting such speech from government regulation," Gora said. "In our democracy, you shouldn't have to register with the government in order to criticize it."