Keep Out Report Sidebar Story: SpeechNow
“SpeechNow” Groups Spring Up in Wake of Entrepreneur’s Successful Battle
|Parker North, CO Free Speech - Sampson v. Buescher|
SpeechNow.org is a classic example of political entrepreneurship. The group was formed to bring a new voice to the political arena and to do so in an innovative way.
First, however, SpeechNow.org had to battle the very campaign finance regulations it opposed. Though Keating deliberately created a new kind of independent citizens’ organization unlike traditional political action committees, the Federal Election Commission argued that it was a PAC and subject to PAC regulations, including burdensome red tape and contribution limits.
“PACs have to keep track of a bunch of different and arbitrary reporting deadlines, often requiring several reports in the space of a couple of weeks if you’re speaking out about candidates in multiple races—it’s a lot for a volunteer group to do,” said Keating. “By contrast, individuals making independent expenditures on their own simply have to report expenditures as they make them. It’s streamlined and makes more sense for SpeechNow.org, which after all is just a group of individuals.”
Worse, the contribution limits effectively silenced the group. During the 2008 election cycle, SpeechNow.org supporters had pledged enough for radio ads targeting two congressional incumbents, but most of the pledges were greater than the $5,000 contribution limit for federal PACs—and thus illegal according to the FEC.
“When you have just a handful of people who feel strongly about an issue and the rest of the public hasn’t much thought about it yet, it’s hard to round up many small donations,” said Keating. “You need a political venture capitalist willing to put in a large amount of seed money and attract other people to the cause.”
So SpeechNow.org joined with the Institute for Justice and the Center for Competitive Politics to challenge the PAC limits and regulations. In March 2010, two-and-a-half years after SpeechNow.org was formed, a federal appeals court agreed that limiting contributions to independent groups is unconstitutional. In that, the appellate court was following the lead of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, which likewise struck down bans on independent speech (see page 30). However, the appellate court broke with the Supreme Court by upholding the burdensome PAC registration and reporting requirements. SpeechNow.org is appealing that part of the ruling.
Thanks to SpeechNow.org’s victory over contribution limits, nearly two dozen other “SpeechNow” groups have sprung up at the federal level. These are citizen groups that have told the FEC they plan to follow SpeechNow.org’s roadmap for speaking out in elections, and their interests range from the environment to dentistry. SpeechNow.org itself is raising funds for a television ad campaign against Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, the co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.
“The SpeechNow model enables more people to start up more groups,” said Keating. “These SpeechNow groups are laboratories for people to get new ideas into the political space.”
Unfortunately, SpeechNow groups still face an uphill battle if they want to speak out in state and local elections. All 50 states impose PAC registration and reporting requirements on independent groups (see page 24), and laws on the books in 24 states limit contributions to such groups (see page 13)—though election officials in two of those states, Kentucky and Massachusetts, recognize that contribution limits for independent groups are unconstitutional and are no longer enforcing the limits.