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Free speech fight

SpeechNow.org wants to criticize politicians who support restrictions on political speech. But first it has to get permission from the government.

Last fall the Federal Election Commission agreed to decide whether SpeechNow.org, an independent group that plans to run TV and radio ads opposing or supporting candidates for federal office based on their First Amendment positions, has to register as a “political committee.” In addition to the administrative burden that would entail, it would limit the group’s ability to raise money, since each donor would be allowed to give no more than $5,000 per year and would have to count the donation toward his two-year limit of $65,500 for all political contributions.

SpeechNow.org argues that in its case such restrictions cannot be justified by the goals the U.S. Supreme Court has cited in upholding campaign finance rules: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption, providing the public with information about candidates, and preventing corporations from using their “immense aggregations of wealth” to exercise a “corrosive and distorting” influence on politics.

The group, which is represented by lawyers from the Institute for Justice and the Center for Competitive Politics, is not a corporation (not even the nonprofit sort) and is not affiliated with any party or candidate. Its bylaws ban donations from corporations or labor unions, donations to parties or candidates, and coordination of its activities with parties or campaigns. Its ads would include disclaimers identifying the sponsor and noting that the spots are “not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.” The group would publicly disclose its donors’ names and the amounts they give.

On their own, the members of SpeechNow.org are free to spend as much money as they want on ads attacking politicians. They argue that the situation should be no different when they get together and pool their resources so their message can reach a wider audience. Otherwise, they say, their First Amendment right to freedom of speech would be abridged because they chose to exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of association.

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