Public Interest Groups Challenge FEC Threat to Public Debate

FEC Action on Overreaching Opinion Could Come on Thursday

An unprecedented collection of 324 national, state, and local environmental, civil rights, civil liberties, women’s rights, public health, social welfare, senior, religious, and social justice organizations today urged the Federal Election Commission to reject an FEC General Counsel draft advisory opinion that could severely restrict the ability of nonprofit organizations to communicate with the public about important policy issues. The FEC is scheduled to consider the opinion at its meeting this Thursday, February 5.

It could be virtually impossible for groups other than federal PACs to criticize or commend members of Congress or President Bush for anything they say or do if the commissioners approve the draft opinion’s assertion that any communication that “promotes, supports, attacks, or opposes” any federal candidate must be paid for using funds raised under the restrictions of the federal election laws. According to the organizations’ letter of concern, the draft advisory opinion could allow the FEC to regulate and potentially stifle debate on public policy issues, granting the agency a level of power that far exceeds the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) as well as the express advocacy test upheld by the Supreme Court.

For example, the opinion, as drafted, could put unprecedented restrictions on spending for:

  • A web site that criticizes funding cuts contained in the budget recently transmitted to Congress by President Bush;
  • An awards dinner honoring Senator Feingold for his support of campaign finance reform;
  • A newsletter article that lists members of Congress who have co-sponsored legislation supported by an organization;
  • A fundraising appeal from organizations that seeks to oppose Bush administration policies toward the environment.

    “Making it unlawful to criticize the policies and actions of a sitting President or Members of Congress except under the auspices of a registered political committee is one of the most fundamental attacks on the freedom of speech and freedom of association of American citizens ever contemplated by a government agency,” says the public interest organizations’ comments.

    Alarmed by the draft opinion’s far-reaching potential to limit public debate on issues, restrict the ability of advocacy organizations to criticize public officials, undermine voter registration activities, and severely limit charitable groups’ fundraising activities, the public interest organizations “urge the Commission, with the greatest sense of urgency and in the strongest terms possible, not to issue the draft opinion in its present form.”

    Attorneys available for comment:

  • Mike Trister and Holly Schadler, Lichtman, Trister & Ross, 202-328-1666
  • Gail Harmon and Elizabeth Kingsley, Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg, LLP, 202-328-3500

    Organization media contacts:

  • People For the American Way: Laurie Boeder 202-467-4999
  • Alliance for Justice: Carrie Boron 202-822-6070
  • Leadership Conference on Civil Rights: Michelle Woolley 202-263-2881
  • NARAL Pro-choice America: Evelyn Becker 202.973.3020
  • NAACP National Voter Fund: Greg Moore, 202-898-0969
  • Sierra Club: Kerri Glover, 202-547-1141
  • League of Conservation Voters: Mark Sokolove, 202-454-4573
  • Planned Parenthood Federation of America: Colleen McCabe, 212-261-4729
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