A "campaign reform" plan being promoted by the League of Women Voters (LWV) would trample on the First Amendment rights of issue-oriented groups to communicate directly with the public regarding the positions and votes of politicians, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) said July 21, 1997.

The League held a press conference in Washington today to discuss its national advertising campaign titled, "Five Ideas for Practical Campaign Reform." According to a full-page ad in the July 20 WASHINGTON POST, one major component of the League proposal is aimed at "outside groups" that run "thinly veiled political ads disguised as 'issue advocacy', escaping all disclosure or limits on contributions." In a packet, the League explains its proposal this way:

"Any paid communication with the general public that uses a federal candidate's name or likeness within ninety days of a primary or of a general election...(would) be considered a campaign ad, not an issue advocacy message...The AFL-CIO or the Chamber of Commerce, the Christian Coalition or the Sierra Club, for example, could run whatever ads it wanted, funded as it wished, whenever it wanted, that mentioned or referred to no specific candidate for office."

Such a ban on "any paid communication with the general public that uses a federal candidate's name or likeness" would prohibit issue-oriented citizen groups from distributing congressional "scorecards," or any other voter education efforts, for three months before each election - which is blatantly unconstitutional. The league notes that such commentary could still be performed by political action committees (PACs), but fails to point out that this means that such speech would be severely rationed, since there are numerous limits on both fundraising and spending by PACs.

The League's proposal would flagrantly violate the First Amendment right of American citizens, including incorporated groups, to comment as they see fit on the positions and actions of politicians on issues--a right that exists year around. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment prohibits the government from placing any restrictions on such so-called issue advocacy, whether or not it discusses specific candidates, unless it uses words that explicitly urge the reader or viewer to "vote for" or "vote against" an identified candidate.

As the Supreme Court said in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo, "As long as persons and groups eshew expenditures that in express terms advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate (i.e.,"express advicact"), they are free to spend as much as they want to promote the candidate and his views." The Court also said:

For the distinction beween discussion of issues and candidates and advocacy of election or defeat of candidates may often dissolve in practical application. Candidates, especially incumbents, are intimately tied to public issues involving legislative proposals and governmental actions...In the free society ordained by our Constitution it is not the government, but the people--individually as citizens and candidates and collectively as associations and political committees--who must retain control over the quantity and range of debate on public issues in a political campaign.

..constitutional deficiencies...can be avoided only by reading (the phrase) "expenditure...relative to a clearly identified candidate" (in the Federal Election Campaign Act) as limited to communications that include explicit words of advocacy of election or defeat of a candidate...(The Court explicitly defined such "express advocacy" as words such as)"'vote for', 'elect', 'support', 'cast your ballot for', 'Smith for Congress', 'vote against', 'defeat', 'reject.'"

In more recent cases, the Court has reaffirmed that only speech about politicians that fits within this narrowly defined category can be regulated. The League's proposed ban on any communication that contains "the name or likeness" of a person who holds or seeks federal office simply ignores these rulings.

The Supreme Court has also made it clear that, to the extent that influencing voters' decisions is a motivating factor in any specific issue-advocacy communication to the public, it does not mean that communication is an evasion of the election laws. The First Amendment is not a "legal loophole" -- it is the nation's paramount election law. The right to attempt to persuade one's fellow citizens of the issues that they should weigh in casting their votes is as fundamental as the right to vote itself.

The League's packet notes that "an exemption would apply...for candidates debates and press coverage." Of course, the League itself often runs candidate debates. This is only one example of the manner in which the League seeks to skew the law in order to enhance the value of its own types of political "currency", at the expense of the free-speech rights of other groups of citizens. The League depends heavily on "free media" -- that is, sympathy for its viewpoints from the institutional news media and editorial boards -- in order to advance its public policy agenda, which includes lobbying against restrictions on abortion. By suppressing political speech, by grassroots-oriented groups, the League's proposal would further strengthen the ability of the institutional news media and elitist "public interest groups" to shape political debate.

Although often awarded the loaded label "public interest group" in press reports the League of Women Voters is perhaps better described as a "special-interest group" with a broad legislative agenda, including many issues that are not related to election law or the structure of government. For example, on April 3, 1997, League president Becky Cain sent a memo to U.S. senators, urging them to vote against the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, noting,"The League of Women Voters has a strong and long-standing commitment to the concept that public policy in a pluralistic society must affirm the right to privacy of the individual to make reproductive choices." Other subjects for League lobbying this year include the chemical weapons treaty, gun control, the balanced budget constitutional amendment, U.S. financial support for the United Nations, health care for children, and clean air standards. "If we're a special-interest group, so are they, and if they're a public interest group, so are we," said NRLC Legislative Director Doughlas Johnson.

NRLC'S viewpoint on speech-restrictive "campaign reform" proposals, such as the McCain-Feingold bill and the League porposal, are found in "Let's Not Give Politicians the Power to Decide What We Can Say About Them" (July 4), co-authored with Mike Beard of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which is available on the Cato Institute web side. NRLC has also produced a detailed legal critque of the speech-restrictive components of the McCain-Feingold bill, S.25, which is available at the NRLC Page on Campaign Reform


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