People For the American Way

Civil Liberties Experts: Limiting Big Money In Elections Doesn’t Infringe on Free Speech Rights

This morning, six civil liberties experts released a letter emphasizing that reasonable regulations on money in elections do not violate the free speech rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. The authors — academics, philanthropists, and lawyers, all of whom are former leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — make clear that the protection of civil liberties is entirely compatible with commonsense limits on money in elections.

The letter was released following a barrage of misleading arguments pushed by Sen. Ted Cruz and others about the Democracy for All Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United that will be voted on in the Senate on Monday. Though opponents have tried to position themselves as defenders of free speech, with Sen. Cruz going so far as to claim that the amendment would repeal the First Amendment and “muzzle” Americans, this letter emphasizes that it is, in fact, the Court’s twisted interpretation of the First Amendment that threatens to leave Americans without a voice:

Rather than interpreting the First Amendment as assuring everyone a reasonable opportunity to be heard, the Court (and the National ACLU) has turned the First Amendment on its head by guaranteeing the wealthy an expensive set of stereo speakers, and leaving the average citizen with a bad case of laryngitis. Most Americans would find it preposterous to allot more time in a debate to the speaker with the most money. Yet, that is precisely how our campaign finance system functions today.

The authors, many of whom signed a similar letter in 1998, note that our country’s money in politics problem has only gotten worse since then. In the wake of decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon, they write, “American democracy is almost irretrievably broken.” While they do not weigh in on the Democracy for All Amendment specifically, the civil liberties experts close the letter with a call to restore the promise of the First Amendment by overturning these damaging decisions:

We believe that overturning many of the Court’s narrow 5-4 campaign finance precedents and implementing generous, content neutral political spending limits is the best way to fulfill the promise of James Madison’s First Amendment as democracy’s best friend.

You can read the full text of the letter here.