A front page article in today’s Washington Post highlights how free speech is on the rise. Since late July, many new groups from across the ideological spectrum have come together to independently advocate for or against candidates this election season. By vigorously talking about the issues and candidates they care about the most, these new groups have the potential to reshape the face of American politics.
This explosion of activity didn’t just happen randomly, though. Instead, it was made possible by a group called SpeechNow.org. David Keating, SpeechNow.org’s founder and president, set up the group precisely to allow individuals to do what they are now doing—joining together to speak out about candidates. Federal law prevented that, however, by making the groups PACs and restricting their fundraising. Under the law, one person could spend as much as he wanted for his own speech, but if he joined with others, they were each limited to $5,000 apiece. In essence, the law forced people to choose between their constitutional right to speak and their constitutional right to associate.
In February 2008, the Institute for Justice and the Center for Competitive Politics sued the federal government on behalf of SpeechNow.org. More than two years later, SpeechNow.org prevailed on its claim that the government could not limit the amounts individuals can give to the group to fund its independent speech. The D.C. Circuit ruled unanimously that independent speech—even speech calling for the election or defeat of candidates—does not pose a threat of corruption and thus cannot be limited. The victory benefitted not only SpeechNow.org but groups of all political stripes, which is exactly the reason so many of them have cropped up in recent months.
The Post is referring to these groups as “Super PACs,” but that’s a misnomer. PACs give money to candidates. “SpeechNow Groups” do not. They spend their own money on their own speech about candidates, which is one of the primary things the First Amendment was designed to protect. After the Citizens United decision, many people howled that corporations are not people and should not be permitted to speak. Well, SpeechNow is “people”—people joining together to exercise their First Amendment rights to speak out and to affect the course of their government. Because of David Keating and SpeechNow, a ruling that allowed corporations to spend their own money on speech has now been extended to prevent the government from restricting the ability of citizen groups—presumably the very groups that critics of Citizens United want to be able to speak—to pool their funds and amplify their voices. That’s a huge win for free speech.