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FEC Urged To Reject Proposed Reg. Amendments


Amendments would have effect of stifling legitimate expression by non-partisan, non-profit organizations

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and a number of its affiliates announced that they have filed objections with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to proposed amendments to the regulations concerning campaign finance. The proposals were published and public comment was invited on March 11, 2004.

The proposed amendments could treat many non-profit and public interest organizations as political action committees subject to campaign finance regulation and reporting requirements. This could be devastating for public education and advocacy groups that are tax-exempt under section 501 (c) of the Internal Revenue Code. While the Supreme Court has said that such groups may only be regulated when they engage in express advocacy for or against candidates, the proposed regulations could make them subject to regulation for a much broader range of activity.

The National Lawyers Guild is an association of attorneys, law students and legal workers dedicated to the proposition that human rights are more important than property rights. The NLG itself frequently engages in political speech and for nearly seventy years has devoted its efforts to representing political activists. The NLG believes that wealth should not be permitted to dominate the electoral process, and applaud legitimate regulations that enhance the ability of people of average means to participate meaningfully in politics. At the same time, the NLG is are concerned that the proposed campaign finance regulation of 501(c) public education and advocacy groups would likely inhibit legitimate political expression by those groups. 501(c) groups by definition do not have influencing candidate elections as their major purpose. Current federal campaign finance laws and Supreme Court rulings establish that the only activity by these groups which may be regulated is express candidate advocacy. This properly permits such groups to voice opinions on policies or officeholders without being covered by federal registration, reporting or contribution limits or other campaign finance regulations.

In its comments to the FEC, the NLG expresses deep concern over a proposed amendment that would treat as Political Action Committees any groups that have influencing the outcome of elections as "a major purpose." In order to protect the First Amendment right of private associations to comment on public issues, the Supreme Court has previously stated that only groups for which electioneering is "the major purpose" should be subject to campaign finance regulation. The NLG is concerned that this proposed addition to the regulations would chill protected speech, particularly criticism of incumbent office holders who happen to be running for re-election.

The NLG's comments also underscore its particular concern over proposed regulations that would consider nonpartisan voter registration and mobilization ("get out the vote" activity) in determining whether a group has as its major purpose to influence candidate elections. This carries the substantial danger of stifling legitimate expression by non-partisan, non-profit organizations whose primary purpose is not to influence the outcome of elections.

Given other recent actions the government has taken there is a serious danger that the proposed regulations could serve a narrow and inappropriate political agenda. We are concerned about a pattern of efforts to discourage dissent in America and criticism of the current President in particular. These steps have included the passage of the misnamed USA PATRIOT Act, the abolition of the Levi Guidelines in May 2002, by Attorney General Ashcroft, permitting infiltration of and spying upon domestic political groups, the limitation by the Secret Service of the rights of peaceful protestors critical of the President by permitting demonstrations only in so-called "free speech zones" far from the actual venue of presidential appearances, and numerous other administrative and executive orders.


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