Lobbies' Lobby

Fighting restrictions on advocacy


What do the American Conservative Union, the Fund for a Feminist Majority, the National Right to Life Committee, People for the American Way, the Term Limits Legal Institute, and Gun Owners of America have in common? They are all members of the Free Speech Coalition, formed in October to fight government restrictions on grass-roots advocacy.

The coalition opposes such ideas as a proposal by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to boost nonprofit postage rates. Stevens argues that these discounted rates cause the Postal Service to lose money. Wrong, say coalition legal counsels William Olson and Mark Weinberg. Third-class nonprofit rates not only cover mailing costs in full, but nonprofit groups must pay additional fees that help defray the Postal Service's general overhead costs.

Meanwhile, the Senate has passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that would redefine lobbying in the eyes of government regulators. For tax purposes, the Internal Revenue Service has ruled that "lobbying" occurs only when an organization asks a member of Congress to vote for or against a specific bill. Levin's bill would require any group that takes a position on a public issue—even when, say, the American Red Cross encourages flood relief—to register as a lobbyist and disclose its funding sources.

Sometimes the government attacks specific groups. Texas officials are trying to force the Ku Klux Klan to surrender its list of members and donors. Anthony Griffin, a 39-year-old African-American attorney from Galveston, is representing the Klan. Griffin argues that Texas officials are using the same tactics that were ruled unconstitutional when Southern segregationists tried to force donor lists from the NAACP and the Black Panther Party. In the 1950s, the Supreme Court held that political activists and donors have the right to maintain their anonymity.