Bill would restrict constitutionally protected speech and stifle citizen groups
WASHINGTON – In an extraordinary display of contempt for the First Amendment, House Democrats today voted 234-193 to pass H.R. 1, the so-called “For the People Act of 2019.” The bill was carefully crafted to maximize short-term political benefits for the dominant faction of one political party, while running roughshod over the First Amendment protections for political speech that have been clearly and forcefully articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of landmark First Amendment rulings.
“Clearly the words of the First Amendment, namely that ‘Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech’ mean absolutely nothing to Nancy Pelosi and her Democrat colleagues,” said Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life. “H.R. 1 is a dangerous assault by elected officials on the right of Americans and citizen organizations like National Right to Life to freely talk about the actions and voting records of the elected officials themselves.”
Enactment of H.R. 1 would not be a curb on corruption, but is itself a type of corruption – an abuse of the lawmaking power, by which incumbent lawmakers employ the threat of criminal sanctions, among other deterrents, to reduce the amount of private speech regarding the actions of the lawmakers themselves.
The bill contains many egregious provisions designed to chill political speech, including an expansion of the definition of so-called “electioneering communications” and expansion of the disclaimer provisions of those communications.
In a March 5 letter to House members, National Right to Life noted:
The bill would codify a vague and expansive definition of “the functional equivalent of express advocacy,” that applies to communications that “when taken as a whole, it can be interpreted by a reasonable person only as advocating the election or defeat of a candidate for election for Federal office.” There is little that an organization could say by way of commentary on the votes or positions taken by an incumbent member of Congress that would not fall within this expansive definition, in the eyes of some “reasonable person” – most often, an annoyed incumbent lawmaker or his operatives.
In addition, the bill would require expansive disclosure of donors by organizations like National Right to Life, our affiliates, and chapters thereby infringing on the rights of those donors in their exercise of free association. The net effect of these donor disclosure requirements to organizations involved in speech about elected officials would likely be reduced donations to avoid triggering disclosure requirements, or loss of donors altogether.
As the ACLU argued in their March 1, 2019 letter to House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Ranking Member Tom Cole (R-Okla.):
The Constitution requires a healthy respect for associational privacy. In NAACP v. Alabama, the Supreme Court recognized that “[i]nviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.” For that reason alone, we should be very cautious when contemplating invasions of that privacy. Because the [bill] would expose the private associations of an overbroad number of donors, it fails to respect this first constitutional principle.
In a piece from the Institute for Free Speech, titled “For the People Act” Replete with Provisions for the Politicians, by Eric Wang, issued on January 23, he writes:
The right to associate oneself with a nonprofit group’s mission and to support the group financially in private is a bedrock principle of the First Amendment that the government may not abridge casually. This is particularly true when the cause is contentious, such as abortion, gun control, LGBTQ rights, or civil rights, and association with either side on any of these issues may subject a member or donor to retaliation, harassment, threats, and even physical attack, as recent events have tragically reminded us. The potential divisiveness of these issues does not diminish their social importance and the need to hash out these debates in public while preserving donors’ privacy.
“H.R. 1 is nothing more than a gratuitous power grab by Democrats in an attempt to silence the voice of their opposition,” added Tobias. “The American people should not be fooled by rhetoric claiming this bill is about stopping corruption in politics. The bill is itself the very definition of corrupt.”