- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

A free-speech group that wants to raise unlimited cash from its supporters to run ads for or against federal candidates is suing the Federal Election Commission in a case that could loosen some campaign-finance restrictions.

The lawsuit, filed yesterday in federal court in Washington by SpeechNow.org, comes weeks after FEC lawyers said the group should form as a political committee and that it could not take more than $5,000 from contributors.

But attorneys for the group, which aims to support or oppose candidates based on their First Amendment views, argue that it should not be subject to political action committee restrictions.

They say the group doesn’t coordinate with politicians or political parties and that it refuses to accept union or corporate donations. Founder David Keating said individuals can spend unlimited sums to sway elections.

“If one can do it, then why can’t two?” asked Mr. Keating, who is also executive director of the anti-tax group Club for Growth.

Two FEC commissioners split last month on whether SpeechNow.org should be subject to $5,000 contribution limits.

But the ruling wasn’t official because four seats on the six-member FEC board remain vacant as a result of a political stalemate in the Senate over pending nominations to the board.

According to court papers, SpeechNow.org had planned to run ads during the 2008 election cycle against several candidates, including Republican Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana and Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana.

The cost for producing and running the ads would be at least $400,000. But attorneys for SpeechNow.org said the group can’t raise the money to pay for the ads if supporters are limited to giving $5,000 per year.

Attorneys for two nonprofit groups that study campaign-finance issues — Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center — previously urged the FEC to rule that SpeechNow.org is subject to contribution limits.

Paul Ryan, associate general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, said the lawsuit raises issues that the courts should decide. He also said several similar cases challenging campaign laws have been filed in recently in California.

“Regardless of which case makes it to the Supreme Court first, the decision will undoubtedly be far-reaching,” he said. “The simple fact of the matter is that the Supreme Court has never addressed this issue head-on.”

Mr. Ryan said the group’s lawsuit, if successful, would make it easier for groups from all political backgrounds to spend vast sums of cash to sway elections. He cited recent FEC fines for fundraising problems in the 2004 presidential election against groups such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which opposed Democratic Sen. John Kerry, and the liberal America Coming Together, which opposed President Bush.

But Bradley A. Smith, former FEC chairman, now chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, which is one of two groups representing SpeechNow.org in the lawsuit, disagreed. He said the case could “pave the way for other groups of citizens to make their voices heard in elections without being hamstrung by harmful government limits on speech.”

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