FEC lawsuit unites strange political bedfellows

Tuesday, October 20, 1998

Setting aside political differences, the American Civil Liberties Union and the AFL-CIO have backed the Christian Coalition in its defense against a government lawsuit charging the group with violation of election laws.

The Federal Election Commission contends in its lawsuit filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C., that the Christian Coalition violated federal law by distributing a voter guide during the 1996 election. The agency claims the conservative group coordinated the guide with Republican candidates.

In a joint “friend of the court” brief filed recently, the ACLU and the AFL-CIO said the lawsuit raises serious First Amendment issues and significantly interferes with advocacy groups' participation in the political process.

Randy Tate, the coalition's executive director, welcomed the support.

“That these two groups, which are usually on the opposite side of policy issues from Christian Coalition, are willing to come forward, demonstrates that this case is not about partisan politics but about free speech.”

The lawsuit, filed in July 1996, followed an FEC investigation — which lasted more than six years — into the Christian Coalition's political dealings. The FEC contended that the coalition's distribution of its 1996 voter guide was “coordinated” with Republican candidates in the 1996 election and thus violated federal law.

Last month, the Christian Coalition asked U.S. District Judge Joyce Green to dismiss the suit. In a brief, the coalition said that “citizens and labor organizations of every political stripe will be severely constrained in their ability to speak out on public issues of concern to their members and to the public.”

The FEC responded with a motion asking the judge to immediately rule in its favor, but the court has yet to schedule a hearing or trial date.

“We believed all along that the charges are groundless,” said Arnie Owens, the coalition's communication director. Owens said the FEC's intent was to infringe “on the freedom of speech and freedom of association of conservatives. We believed all along that those are basic rights.”

The ACLU and AFL-CIO agreed, stating in their brief that the FEC's lawsuit “poses serious constitutional and statutory questions and will significantly interfere with protected speech by organizations throughout the ideological and political spectrum.”

Steven Shapiro, the ACLU's national legal director, said advocacy organizations should be allowed to issue voting records or criticize candidate positions.

“If advocacy groups are silenced during this crucial phase of our election cycle, the only people who will be allowed to speak about the record of politicians will be politicians and the press,” Shapiro said in a statement. “That result would be unhealthy for democracy and unconstitutional as well.”

“We are happy that the AFL-CIO and the ACLU share our concerns,” Owens said. “No doubt they joined us because they foresee a time when they could very likely become the target of this sort of regulator gone amok.”