ACLU Says Leading Campaign Finance Bills Would Gag Democratically Essential Speech

June 12, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — In testimony before a House subcommittee, the American Civil Liberties Union today predicted that proposed campaign finance legislation would severely curtail critical public and political debate and gravely wound the political party system in America.

“This legislation would censor, gag and otherwise block democratically essential speech,” said ACLU President Nadine Strossen. “Political parties would wither and political debate in the public interest would be under the sway and whim of a giant governmental regulatory machine.”

Strossen told the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the House Judiciary Committee that the leading campaign finance bills — McCain-Feingold in the Senate and Shays-Meehan in the House — each share three specific fatal flaws. First, the bills would stifle individual and corporate speech advocating or opposing issues in the public interest. Second, the legislation would discourage many forms of contact between the public and its political representatives. And finally, the ACLU said the proposed laws would erode the benefits of the current party system in America and effectively prohibit the formation of alternative parties.

Strossen’s testimony point to several unintended consequences that would arise if the bills were to become law:

  • Congress, by shrewd adjustment of the calendar, would be able to make controversial or unpopular legislation immune from public criticism that names the bill’s supporters or detractors.
  • Groups like the National Rifle Association or Planned Parenthood would be effectively silenced from criticizing, by name, any politician in an election cycle for their positions on such issues as gun control or reproductive rights.
  • An ordinary American, who donates more than $50 to any political candidate or party, would be subject to invasive and “Big Brotheresque” disclosure rules that would effectively ban anonymity in political contributions.
    • Strossen said the ACLU has long supported campaign finance reform in the form of robust public financing that would impose a “floor” (a certain amount of public financing) as opposed to the constitutionally circumspect “ceiling” (donation caps and the limitation of free speech) of McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan.

    “Constructing a system of public financing will be a complicated task,” Strossen said. “But it is the right path for Congress to travel. The road we continue to travel — the road of limits on contributions and expenditures — is full of constitutional landmines and is inherently unfair. It is time to strike out on a new path.”

    Click here to read Strossen’s testimony

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