Congress is considering several bills that would limit free expression to such an extent that they have drawn the united opposition of groups that almost never see eye-to-eye — and are more accustomed to slugging things out toe-to-toe.
What could create such an unlikely coalition of political pugilists? S. 271, S. 1053 and H.R. 513 — bills that would effectively abolish the groups that, in Washington shorthand, are known as 527s.
527s provide an alternative to the bland messengers of the status quo, running ads that force discussion on important issues. 527s also work in our communities, knocking on doors, talking to neighbors and encouraging Americans to get to the polls on Election Day.
The ideological diversity of 527s ensures that citizens hear about all issues, even those deemed controversial or irrelevant to the candidates. In 2004, 527s helped renew Americans’ interest in our country’s future, helping push voter turnout to its highest level since 1968.
No matter how much we may disagree with a particular 527 group’s message, and no matter our political differences, all 527s and those who support them believe passionately in the free, unfettered expression of ideas enshrined by the Constitution. It is precisely that First Amendment freedom that these horrendous bills threaten.
Advocates of greater campaign finance regulation have yet to identify the problem they hope to correct with these misguided proposals. 527s wield no corruptive influence over parties or candidates, which is the only constitutional justification for restricting free expression.
Indeed, 527s force candidates to address political issues they would rather avoid — even when the candidate and the 527 group are on the same end of the political spectrum.
Why would Congress have any interest in restricting groups that elicit so much positive civic engagement and democratic debate? Because many have fallen for a number of myths.
Myth: 527s are stealth groups that operate under a veil of secrecy.
Fact: All 527s are subject to strict federal law. All 527s report contributions and expenditures either to the Federal Election Commission or the Internal Revenue Service. Anyone can examine these public disclosures on the Internet.
Myth: 527s are funded by a handful of wealthy individuals.
Fact: In the previous election, the majority of contributors to 527s were ordinary Americans who pooled their money to introduce their issues into the national debate. But even if this myth of solely financed 527s was accurate, how is that corruptive to the political process? In a true marketplace of ideas, the more information, the better.
Broadcast stations are not required to run ads from 527s, unlike the misleading or sometimes false ads that candidates can and do have a right to run. 527 ads are a source of alternative or corrective speech, regardless of who is speaking.
Myth: S. 1053, S. 271 or H.R. 513 would “level the playing field,” ending the ability of the wealthy to fund “propaganda.”
Fact: This argument is completely false. Regardless of additional 527 regulation, wealthy individuals would still be free to say whatever they want, however and whenever they want. The proposals would end only the ability of individuals of lesser means to pool their money and fund voter drives and issue campaigns.
Myth: 527s are “shadow parties” or “fronts” for candidates.
Fact: This is not only untrue, but utterly ridiculous. The penalties for coordination are too great. The independence of 527s was often a sore point with the campaigns in 2004, because 527s raised issues that candidates were reluctant to address.
Many critics of 527s have grudgingly admitted their independence. The truth is that 527s as a whole were constructive participants in the previous election cycle. 527s registered voters, urged citizens to vote and made sure Americans heard not just about the issues the candidates, in their rush to the middle, deemed safe.
Each of us, from our different perspectives, may have fervently disliked the policies advocated by some 527s. But since when has free speech meant only bland speech or “safe” speech? America needs the First Amendment and 527s precisely for speech that’s controversial. To suppress views of those we dislike will inevitably risk suppression of our own.
Even as amended by Congressional committees, these bills still would silence individual Americans who join together to speak with one voice on political issues.
These bills limit the constitutional rights of ordinary Americans. Their passage would ensure that election-year debates reflect those issues that only polls deem safe.
At a time when American democratic engagement is on the rise, and when the president promotes it around the world, Congress should not shut down forces that help promote the debate vital to our democracy.
We who oppose these bills want to continue to freely debate our differences in the public arena. We want Americans to hear all sides — and to decide for themselves who’s right.
Nan Aron is president of the Alliance for Justice. David Keating is the executive director of the Club for Growth.