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Campaign-finance bill violates free-speech rights, critics say

WASHINGTON (BP)–A bill reforming campaign financing that was approved by the U.S. Senate April 2 violates the free-speech rights of pro-life and other advocacy organizations, according to charges made before and after the vote.

The Senate passed S. 27, a campaign-finance proposal sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R.-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D.-Wis., with a 59-41 vote.

Critics, and even some supporters of such reform, called the legislation’s ban on some advocacy-group advertising a violation of the First Amendment. That provision would prohibit advocacy organizations classified as 501(c)(4) by the Internal Revenue Service from financing television or radio ads that include the name of a candidate for 60 days before a general election and 30 days prior to a congressional primary.

The National Right to Life Committee cited the example of the measure’s effect if the House of Representatives were to consider a ban on partial-birth abortions early next March. NRLC would be barred from sponsoring ads on Christian radio stations naming members of Congress and asking citizens to contact them the week before the vote on the ban in states that are holding primaries in which they are candidates within 30 days.

The bill “would greatly impair our right to effectively inform the public about events in Congress,” NRCL said in a letter to senators.

“This bill shakes a fist at the First Amendment; if passed, it is destined for a court-ordered funeral,” the James Madison Center for Free Speech said in a written analysis.

NRLC has been at the forefront of opposing the bill. It has been joined in its opposition by organizations as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and Christian Coalition.

Another section that has caused NRLC concern is a year-round restriction on communications determined to be “in connection with” an election, even when the groups involved are not working in collaboration with a candidate. This limitation would apply to not only broadcast ads but also communications by telephone and in print, NRLC said.

The 41 senators who voted against the legislation “took a courageous stand to defend citizen groups’ First Amendment right to free speech about politicians,” NRLC legislative director Douglas Johnson said in a written release. “They defended the First Amendment in the face of strong pressure from the institutional news media, Hollywood and elitist special-interest” groups.

The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives has expressed opposition to the bill, but that may not stop similar legislation from being approved. President Bush has said he would sign campaign-reform legislation if it “improves the system,” according to CNSNews.com.

All but three Democrats voted for the bill, while 12 Republicans supported it in the Senate. The three Democrats voting “no” were John Breaux of Louisiana, Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. In addition to McCain, the GOP members backing the bill were Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Susan Collins of Maine, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, James Jeffords of Vermont, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Ted Stevens of Alaska and Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

Other provisions in the bill include a ban on “soft-money” contributions to political parties made by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. It also would double the limit on “hard money” given directly to candidates.

Sen. Bill Frist, R.-Tenn., voted against the bill, calling portions of it “unconstitutional,” but said he would support the right version.

“We need reform that improves disclosure, sets reasonable limits on soft money and provides union members with paycheck protection,” Frist said in a written statement, according to CNSNews.com. “There is still time for these and other improvements to be made, and I’m hopeful that ultimately a proposal will be signed that truly gives all candidates a fair chance.”

Paycheck protection, which is not in the McCain-Feingold bill, would prohibit labor unions from using members’ dues for political purposes without permission.