ACLU Welcomes Progressive Allies to Fight Against Shays-Meehan: Statement of Laura W. Murphy, Director

July 12, 2001 12:00 am

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Statement of Laura W. Murphy, Director
ACLU Washington National Office

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

WASHINGTON — We at the American Civil Liberties Union believe that today’s news conference is a significant and encouraging development in our efforts to defend First Amendment rights in the context of campaign finance reform. I’m particularly delighted that the Alliance for Justice and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – each of them long-time allies in the defense of progressive values in America – are here to join with us in expressing opposition to various sections of the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill.

Another of our allies – Planned Parenthood Federation of America – was unfortunately unable to join us this morning, but I have two paragraphs about Shays-Meehan that Planned Parenthood asked me to share with you. Before I discuss the ACLU’s concerns with the bill, I’d like to read Planned Parenthood concerns.

Planned Parenthood believes that any changes to the current campaign finance system should increase the ability of individuals and groups to participate in public debate about issues, legislation, and candidates. The freedom to speak without government intrusion, and the right of citizens to join together to make changes in policy, are core American values. Unfortunately, we believe the electioneering and coordination provisions in the bill do the opposite, in effect placing a gag rule on our ability to speak out on behalf of our clients and advocate for changes that have a direct impact on their lives.

The so-called “ban on electioneering communications” prohibits TV or radio ads, and possibly e-mail and websites, that refer to a clearly identified federal candidate within 30 days of a primary, convention, or caucus and again 60 days before a general election, special election, or run-off. This is the exact period that many of the appropriations bills that provide funding for critical family planning services are considered, and in past years has been the time that many attacks on reproductive rights and health have occurred. And yet during this time, we would be prohibited from letting the public know to contact their representative to support or oppose legislation that affects the work of Planned Parenthood. For these reasons, Planned Parenthood feels the “ban on electioneering communications” would severely compromise our ability to advance important reproductive health legislation and defend a woman’s right to choose.

Now, as to the ACLU, I’m sure that many of you know that for 30 years, the ACLU has fought to ensure that any attempt to reform campaign finance laws meet the requirements of the Constitution and preserve the traditions of a free and democratic society. While the ACLU has long supported attempts to reform the federal electoral system in this country through a system of full public financing for electoral campaigns, we cannot support legislation that would dissolve any of our rights to free speech and free association.

The Shays-Meehan bill, in its current form, would do exactly that.

Under the bill, constitutionally protected citizen speech would be constrained to an enormous degree. The bill’s blurring of the legal line between issue advocacy and express advocacy would all but remove the potential for robust political debate. In fact, if I purchased time on a cable network or broadcast network in the middle of an election campaign to tell the American public what I’m telling you today, I would be committing an offense under Shays-Meehan.

Other aspects of the current bill are equally scary. Under its so-called coordination rules, Shays-Meehan would penalize constitutionally protected contacts that groups and individuals may have with candidates and elected officials. Yet, no such sanctions are imposed on the media. Were it to pass, the bill would ensure that those candidates with ties to friendly media outlets would be given the unfair advantage of a personal bully pulpit.

Finally, the bill would gut the political party system in America by banning contributions from corporations, unions, and other groups. Such a ban would severely hamper the parties’ ability to engage in activities beneficial to our democracy such as voter registration, voter education, platform development and other practices designed to empower the American electorate.

The problems with this bill are legion. It will gag free speech, hobble our political parties, penalize corporations and unions, and give media-connected candidates an unfairly large megaphone by which to seek power, especially during the periods right before a primary or general election.

The Shays-Meehan bill threatens to silence the American people on those issues where their opinions are most needed. If the sponsors of Shays-Meehan have their way they would further entrench the power of the media, wealthy individuals, PACs and the candidates themselves, especially incumbents.

Once again, I’m delighted that our progressive allies have decided to join with us in opposing this dangerous threat to America’s first freedoms.

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