ACLU Joins Hundreds of Groups From Across Political, Ideological Spectrum In Saying Proposed FEC Rules Threaten Free Speech Rights

April 15, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today joined with a wide range of more than 600 groups in expressing its opposition to a proposed rule before the Federal Election Commission that would restrict the fundraising and expenditures of independent political organizations. The FEC is concluding a two-day series of hearings on this issue, where dozens of experts, including the ACLU, have spoken out against the measure.

“Campaign finance reform laws have failed to curtail the influence of money in politics, but they have been successful in censoring when and how groups like the ACLU and the Christian Coalition can speak out on important issues,” said Marvin Johnson, an ACLU Legislative Counsel, who testified before the FEC. “The proposed rule before the FEC would only further tighten the noose on the ability of people to speak out on important and pressing issues.”

At issue is the regulation of non-profit issue advocacy organizations, or “527” and “501” groups – named for the sections of the tax code that regulate their activity. Both of these organizations are currently not prohibited from collecting “soft-money” contributions, but are required to file disclosure forms on their fundraising and expenditures. The Proposed Rulemaking on Political Committee Status seeks to reclassify these organizations as “political committees,” and thus restrict their ability to speak on the issues that they work on.

The proposed rule, if enacted, would require advocacy groups not to engage in activities that mention a specific candidate for federal office, a political party, or mention any policy positions associated with a candidate, unless they raise “hard money” dollars. For example, a public health organization could not run a public awareness campaign on smoking if a candidate in one of those markets was associated with that issue, even if that campaign was not aimed at a specific candidate or election. Such restrictions, the ACLU said, would silence many advocacy groups.

Another provision of the rule would retroactively punish advocacy groups. The re-classified “political committees” would have to account for all advocacy work for the past four years, and pay back any soft-money expenditures with hard money funds. The ACLU stated that this provision alone would shut down a large number of advocacy groups.

The Coalition to Protect Non-Profit Advocacy, which includes the ACLU, noted that the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act did not address the issue of the regulation of 501s and 527s, and that the FEC lacks the authority to enact these measures that would drastically curtail free speech. The ACLU is joined in its concerns by organizations including the National Right to Life Committee and Focus on the Family. The FEC also received a record number of public comments on the proposed rule – more than 140,000 e-mails and 11,000 faxes have been submitted.

“Congress already considered and rejected this very idea,” said Johnson. “Literally thousands of advocacy organizations would be affected, many would be silent out of fear of excessive fines and criminal prosecutions — the restrictions would have a very real and extremely chilling effect on the freedom of speech.”

The Coalition’s Comments to the FEC can be found at:

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