The Next Step after Citizens United

The debates following the Citizens United decision continue, thanks in part to President Obama’s criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court during the State of the Union address.  Keeping track of those debates might cause you to miss what may well turn out to be the next step in liberalizing our campaign finance laws, the case of SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission which was argued last Wednesday before the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

SpeechNow is a group of individuals with a clear mission: “SpeechNow would like to run advertisements urging voters to elect federal candidates who support full protections for First Amendment rights and to defeat candidates who are hostile to those rights.” The group has made sure that its members are independent of candidates for office and the political parties.

You would think they could set up the group and spend as they wish since SpeechNow is not tied to a candidate or party and hence cannot pose a threat of corruption. After all, the First Amendment protects speech by individuals, and the courts have only permitted regulations related to corruption (contribution limits) or public education (mandatory disclosure of spending).

Unfortunately federal law requires any groups that receives contributions of more than $1,000 during a calendar year or spends more than $1,000 during a year to register as a “political committee.” That status would mean disclosure of SpeechNow’s members and limits on contributions and spending. Fulfilling reporting and other requirements and observing the contribution limits would kill SpeechNow’s effort before it started. No group, no ads, no speech.

The Federal Election Commission argues that allowing speech by SpeechNow’s members would lead to corruption. Elected officials, they assert, will reward people who support favored speech even if those people are independent of a candidate or a party. Justice John Paul Stevens endorsed this corruption argument in Citizens United. He was dissenting and had the support of a minority of his fellow justices. The judges who heard the case for the circuit court seemed to believe Citizens United had weakened this sort of corruption argument.

Citizens United limited the power of the federal government over independent expenditures and speech by groups taking a corporate form. The reasoning in that case should apply with added force to individuals associating together to speak, individuals who have no ties to candidates or the political parties.

We’ll keep you up-to-date on the fortunes of the SpeechNow effort. For now, you can read more about the case at the Institute for Justice website or see an account of the circuit court hearing  here.