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Old 12-14-2003, 10:29 AM   #1
 
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Outcome stuns NRA, ACLU

Outcome stuns NRA, ACLU
By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 12/11/2003

WASHINGTON -- Political interest groups said they were stunned and disappointed that the US Supreme Court upheld restrictions on certain campaign-season advertising, and they vowed to find other outlets to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech.

"Prohibiting the use of TV and radio ads in the days and weeks right before an election will blindfold voters just as they are interested in learning about the candidates and the issues," said Thomas Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce. "This decision is a disappointing step back toward less information, fewer options, and restricted speech."

The Chamber of Commerce was part of an unusual alignment of groups, from the AFL-CIO to the American Civil Liberties Union, petitioning the court to strike down the advertising ban in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Donohue said the chamber, the nation's largest business federation, would now turn to phone banks, direct mail, local candidate forums, and meetings to promote probusiness policies and candidates during the 2004 election.

By 5-4 majorities, the high court affirmed the law's bans on both political parties raising unregulated "soft money" and on corporations and unions using general treasury funds, as well as advocacy groups that get their support from businesses and unions, to buy broadcast ads that name or picture federal candidates within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election.

The law aimed to eliminate so-called sham issue ads that target certain candidates close to an election and are paid with unregulated funds. It still allows advocacy advertising at any time in the campaign as long as political action committees pay for it. Such committees may collect individual donations limited to $5,000 per election cycle and must register and disclose contributors to the Federal Election Commission.

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog group, said the court majority put Congress's concerns about corruption ahead of the interest groups' free-speech argument.

"It was a sweeping decision. The court really looked at what what was going on in the political world and thought Congress had the authority to rein in so-called issue ads that were really campaign ads," Noble said.

Noble said "a tremendous amount of room" remains for advocacy groups to get their messages out. They also can advertise on issues at any point in an election cycle, as long as they do not name or picture a candidate.

"The reality is that with the banning of soft money to the parties, we already are seeing a lot of that money to go to so-called issue groups, and they are benefiting from it," he said.

The AFL-CIO, whose general counsel argued the case before the high court, was studying the decision yesterday to see what impact it would have on its $35 million election mobilization in 2004, said Karen Ackerman, the federation's political director. Ackerman called the ruling disappointing and said "it strikes at the right of union members to be engaged in the political process and make their voices heard."

The National Rifle Association will not be stopped by the Supreme Court, Congress, or the "Washington elite" from getting the truth to the public, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, pledged yesterday.

He said the NRA will expand its news operation, which includes a monthly magazine and Internet newscasts, to become a "media outlet" to get around the advertising ban. The NRA spent an estimated $20 million to inform voters and influence the outcome of campaigns in 2000.

"The politicians may not like to be criticized with TV and radio ads, but ultimately they are not going to be able to pull off silencing us," LaPierre said. "The 4 million members of the NRA will be heard."

The ACLU never endorses candidates, but now it risks criminal prosecution if it broadcasts an ad about candidates' positions on civil liberties issues, said Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU's executive director.

"This notion that the government can tell an organization like the ACLU when and how it should address important civil liberties issues is a form of censorship masquerading as campaign-finance reform," said Romero, who called the Supreme Court action "extremely disappointing."

Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America, an advocacy group for social conservatives, called the ruling "amazing" and "aberrant." "The very kind of speech that the First Amendment was meant to protect has less protection than pornography," LaRue said. "This is going to make a lot of lawyers really rich, because every effort will be made to find loopholes, to do whatever you can to get around it."

Legal analysts agreed yesterday that the Supreme Court's sharply divided opinion was not the last word on the campaign-finance law.

"Saying the statute, as written, was largely constitutional does not mean that as applied, it will never infringe on people's rights," said Cassandra F. Lentchner, who practices election law with the Washington firm of Perkins Coie LLP.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
 
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