Appeals court isn’t soft on free speech

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., has ruled that nonprofit groups can spend so-called soft money just as they spend hard money under federal campaign finance laws. We’re pleased to see it.

The soft-money restrictions enacted by the Federal Election Commission in 2005 were based on an artificial and arbitrary distinction between different types of contributions for political campaigns. They were based in part on the McCain-Fiengold law of a few years earlier.

Soft money involves unlimited donations by individuals, corporations, political action committees or unions to nonprofit groups. Hard money doesn’t allow unlimited donations. For instance, a single donor may only give up to $5,000 a year to the hard-money account of a nonprofit group.

In 2005, following concern about the 2004 election campaign, the FEC said those groups had to pay for their election-related activities out of their hard-money accounts, and couldn’t use the soft money, where contributions weren’t limited.

That decision was challenged by Emily’s List, a group that backs primarily Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. But other groups will benefit from the ruling.

Emily’s List argued that the FEC ruling, violated its First Amendment free speech rights by restricting how it could spend the money it receives.

The appeals court agreed. “The First Amendment, as the Court has construed it, safeguards the right of citizens to band together and pool their resources as an unincorporated group or non-profit organization in order to express their views about policy issues and candidates for public office,” the ruling said. “We agree with Emily’s

List that the new FEC regulations contravene those principles and violate the First Amendment.”

It was a strong declaration in support of our constitutional free speech rights, even if we choose to work together through an organization rather than spend our money individually.

If the Supreme Court reacts as strongly in another campaign-finance case that it heard arguments on this month, the First Amendment will have received much-needed protection from those who believe it’s all right to curtail speech if there is money involved.


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