Campaign spending limits divide ACLU

Monday, March 23, 1998

(AP) — Leaders of the nation’s foremost First Amendment advocacy group are facing a rebellion in the ranks over whether campaign spending limits infringe on free speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union has faced public splits in the past, over penalties for hate crimes and limiting abortion protests, for example.

But ACLU members who disagree with the national policy against campaign spending limits say the group has gone too far this time in its rigid reading of the First Amendment.

“It’s almost a religious fundamentalism that’s going on here, where God speaks in the Bible, and this is God’s word, you don’t interpret it, you just do what it says,” Ernest Winsor, board member and past president of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Those who are wary of spending limits say there is reason to be.

“We see clear evidence that people are willing to curtail First Amendment rights and the public doesn’t know the consequences of this,” said Laura W. Murphy, national legislative director of the ACLU in Washington. “We all agree that the system is broken, but I think the breakdown among civil libertarians comes with what are the most appropriate ways to handle that.”

Laws limiting campaign spending have been challenged, and judges have said they violate a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that equated restricting campaign spending with restricting free speech–the same argument posed by the ACLU.

The group also says that spending limits can harm political newcomers with limited resources by making it impossible for them to spend enough to make a name for themselves.

But supporters say spending limits are needed to prevent campaign corruption and open up the system.

“It’s like a debate in a public park, where one or two people have a public address system and everyone else can’t use the microphone,” Winsor said. “If you don’t have it, you can’t enter. Your voice won’t be heard at all.”

ACLU affiliates in states that have passed spending limits, however, are split. Maine, Alaska and Vermont affiliates are following ACLU policy and opposing the laws, while many others have voted to stay neutral to avoid going against the national board, including three of the most influential affiliates, in northern and southern California and Massachusetts.

Still others have voted not to vote at all.

None has aggressively lobbied in favor of the limits, though several contemplated it and decided it was too controversial, including the ACLU of New Mexico.

“We declined because our own organization is so torn about the methodology,” said Jennie Lusk, executive director of the ACLU in Albuquerque, where spending limits were temporarily put on hold last year.

“If there’s an issue that might bubble up and cause the affiliates to verge from the national, it would probably be this issue,” she said. “There is real dissension.”