ACLU Asks Court to Stay Campaign Finance Ruling, Saying Decision Threatens Advocacy on Vital Civil Liberties Issues

May 9, 2003 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union today urged a special court to put on hold its ruling in a campaign finance law challenge, saying it represents a “sea change” in the free speech rights of non-partisan issue groups and could restrict the ACLU’s plans to air broadcast advertisements on pressing civil liberties issues.

“Now more than ever, it is important that the unprecedented assault on civil liberties following the 9/11 tragedy be fully discussed and that candidates be held accountable for their actions,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “The rush to adopt regressive post-9/11 legislation poses the single greatest threat to civil liberties since the McCarthy Era, and it is not possible to discuss these issues or influence legislation in a meaningful way without identifying candidate positions.”

At issue is the May 2nd ruling of a special three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Washington in a challenge to the major provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold legislation.

While the court struck down one broad ban on election-time issue ads by a range of interest groups, it upheld an entirely new set of “fallback” restrictions that would prevent groups like the ACLU from sponsoring any broadcast communication at any time that could be construed as promoting, supporting, opposing, or attacking a candidate for federal office.

The ACLU has never endorsed or opposed a candidate for political office in its 83-year history. However, as the nation’s oldest and largest civil liberties organization, the ACLU frequently takes public positions on important civil liberties issues.

“The court’s decision confronts the ACLU with an intolerable and unacceptable dilemma,” Romero said. “We can continue to speak out on these vital civil liberties issues at the risk of civil or criminal penalties, or we can remain silent until the time – perhaps six to eight months from now – when the Supreme Court finally resolves this matter.”

As long as the current ruling is in place, the ACLU said in legal papers, “we are without any guidance defining how far these planned ads can go in criticizing the proposed legislation and members of Congress who support it. We can only assume that the more aggressive we are in our criticism and rhetoric, the more likely our statements will fall within the definition of speech that is now prohibited.”

The district court is likely to rule on these and other possible motions for stay or injunction by the end of next week. Supreme Court review of the case is not likely to occur until the beginning of its next Term in October.

The ACLU’s motion for a stay of the ruling is online at /node/36999

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero’s affidavit is online at /node/36998

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