Old ACLU guard breaks ranks in campaign finance debate

Friday, June 19, 1998

Nine former ranking leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union today openly criticized the group’s opposition to campaign finance reform, saying the current leadership has misinterpreted the First Amendment as it applies to election laws.

“We believe that the First Amendment is designed to safeguard a functioning and fair democracy,” the former leaders said. “The current system of campaign financing makes a mockery of that ideal by enabling the rich to set the national agenda and to exercise disproportionate influence over the behavior of public officials.”

The ACLU, meanwhile, stands among those who say reform efforts would limit speech, thereby violating the First Amendment. Some say the U.S. Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo equated money with political speech, and effectively undercut any finance reform laws the Congress might enact.

“We are untroubled by the questions [the former leaders] raise and believe it is they who allow members of Congress and President Clinton to hide behind so-called reforms that are both unconstitutional and ineffective,” said ACLU President Nadine Strossen, Executive Director Ira Glasser and Legislative Director Laura Murphy in a response.

The current leadership said efforts to stop soft-money donations keep Congress from examining true reform, which they said comes in the form of fair and adequate public financing.

In their statement, the nine men—Norman Dorsen, Bruce Ennis, Morton Halperin, Charles Morgan, Aryeh Neier, Burt Neuborne, Jack Pemberton, John Powell and Melvin Wulf—said they represent every living person except one who has served as the group’s president, executive director, legal director or legislative director for the past 30 years.

“While I am proud of my ACLU service and continue to support the ACLU’s matchless efforts to preserve the Bill of Rights, I believe the national ACLU’s position on campaign finance reform is wrong on constitutional and policy grounds,” said Neuborne, a former ACLU legal director. “Opponents of reform should no longer be permitted to hide behind a constitutional smoke screen.”

Neuborne now serves as legal director for the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit group supporting reform. The Brennan Center prepared the statement.

E.J. Dionne Jr., a columnist for The Washington Post, called the former ACLU’s leaders’ statement “a major breakthrough in the battle to reform the campaign money system.” Dionne, in his column, said such dissent among the ranks of the ACLU shows an evident need for reform.

In their statement, the nine men called on the Supreme Court to overturn Buckley, saying it wrongly equated money with free speech.

“Such an approach ignores the long-established Supreme Court rule that when speech is inextricably intertwined with conduct, the conduct may be regulated if it threatens to cause serious harm,” they said.

They said reasonable spending limits would free candidates to focus on issues and not on fund-raising efforts. They maintain that by allowing limits on contributions but not on spending, the court has turned the nation’s election system into a money-hungry monster.

“The Buckley court inadvertently created a system that tempts politicians to break the law governing campaign contributions in order to satisfy an uncontrollable need for campaign cash,” they said.

Finally, the men said the court allowed the nation’s electoral system to become one based on “one dollar-one vote” instead of “one person-one vote.”

But the current leadership said their former colleagues press for proposals that would limit political speech.

“We continue to shake our heads, wondering how such measures can be regarded as ‘reforms’ by anyone who is genuinely committed to the First Amendment,” they said.