February 22, 2012
The American Civil Liberties Union has earned its reputation as the nation’s foremost legal opponent of government censorship and defender of First Amendment political speech. But increasingly, this national organization with 500,000 members and a $70 million annual budget has another legacy—helping the wealthiest Americans and institutions spend unlimited sums on elections.
This complex legacy follows a nearly four-decade history of filing briefs in the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, virtually all of them arguing that the door to censorship, via regulation of core political speech, must never be opened. But various forces in the courts, the political world, and inside the ACLU are converging that may prompt the ACLU’s national board to reexamine its hardened stance in a more nuanced light, just as it moderated its policy on public financing of elections soon after the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United ruling.
The pressure went up considerably on Friday, as two U.S. Supreme Court Justices said the Court should reopen Citizens United, as they suspended a Montana Supreme Court ruling that upheld the state’s century-old ban on corporate electioneering. Unlike the ACLU’s national office, which urged the Court to remove restrictions on independent—or non-candidate related—electioneering, the Montana ACLU argued this wasn’t about censorship at all, but preventing corruption and ensuring Montanans’ voices could be heard in elections.