'The First Amendment Cannot Be Encroached Upon for Naught'


Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously struck down restrictions on contributions to independent groups that spend money on election-related speech. The case was brought by the Institute for Justice and the Center for Competitive Politics on behalf  of SpeechNow.org, a group that wanted to sponsor messages opposing candidates who support restrictions on political speech and supporting candidates who oppose them. The twist was that SpeechNow is not organized as a corporation, and it does not take corporate contributions; hence the anti-corruption rationale for restricting political speech by corporations did not apply. The group nevertheless would have had to register as a "political committee," with all the attendant reporting requirements and contribution limits, simply to pool its individual donors' money and use it to communicate their opinions. Once the Supreme Court ruled two months ago, in Citizens United v. FEC, that even corporations (including nonprofit interest groups) cannot be prevented from saying whatever they want about politicians whenever they want, it was pretty clear that SpeechNow would win its case, which was aimed at pushing through a loophole that is no longer necessary.

Citizens United "simplifies the task of weighing the First Amendment interests implicated by contributions to SpeechNow," Chief Judge David Sentelle wrote for the unanimous court. "The Court held that the government has no anti-corruption interest in limiting contributions to an independent expenditure group….The First Amendment cannot be encroached upon for naught." The court did uphold the Federal Election Commission's  requirement that political committees disclose their donors, which SpeechNow had said it planned to do anyway.

I.J. attorney Steve Simpson comments: "This is a tremendous victory for free speech. This decision ensures that all Americans can band together to make their voices heard during elections." SpeechNow President David Keating adds, "Thanks to this ruling, citizens' groups across the country—no matter what issues they care about—finally have the freedom to hold politicians accountable."

The D.C. Circuit's ruling is here (PDF). I discussed the case in a 2007 column.