SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission

Learn About the Case That Led to the Creation of Super PACs

Political Fund raising
cmannphoto / Getty Images

The well known and widely scorned court case Citizens United has been credited with paving the way for the creation of super PACs, the hybrid political groups that are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from corporations and unions to influence American elections.

But there would be no super PACs without a lesser known, companion court challenge to Federal Election Commission fundraising laws, SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission.

The nonprofit political group, organized under Internal Revenue Service Section 527, is just as instrumental in the creation of super PACs as Citizens United. 

Summary of SpeechNow.org v. FEC

SpeechNow.org sued the FEC in February 2008 claiming the $5,000 federal limit on how much individuals can give to a political committee such as its own, which therefore limited how much it could spend supporting candidates, represented a violation of the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee to freedom of speech. 

In May of 2010, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of SpeechNow.org, meaning the FEC could not longer enforce the contribution limits to independent groups. 

Argument in Support of SpeechNow.org

The Institute for Justice and the Center for Competitive Politics, which represented SpeechNow.org, argued that the fundraising limits were a violation of free speech, but also that the FEC's rules requiring it and similar groups to organize, register, and report as a “political committee” in order to advocate for or against candidates was too burdensome.

"That means that while Bill Gates one his own could spend as much of his money as he wanted on political speech, he could contribute only $ 5,000 to a similar group effort. But since the First Amendment guarantees individuals the right to speak without limit, it should be common sense that groups of individuals have the same rights.

 It turns out that these limits and red tape made it virtually impossible for new independent citizen groups to raise start-up funding and effectively reach voters." 

Argument Against SpeechNow.org

The government's argument against SpeechNow.org was that allowing contributions of more than $5,000 from individuals could “lead to preferential access for donors and undue influence over officeholders.” The government was taking the tack that it's ruled are designed to prevent corruption.

The court rejected that argument, though, in the wake of the January 2010 decision in Citizens United, writing“Whatever the merits of those arguments before Citizens United, they plainly have no merit after Citizens United….Contributions to groups that make only independent expenditures cannot corrupt or create the appearance of corruption.”

Difference Between SpeechNow.org and Citizens United Cases

Though the two cases are similar and deal with independent expenditure-only committees, the SpeechNow court challenge focus on federal fundraising caps. Citizen United successfully challenged the spending limit on corporations, unions, and associations. In other words, SpeechNow focused on raising money and Citizens United focused on spending money to influence elections.

Impact of SpeechNow.org v. FEC

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia's ruling the case, combined with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, together paved the way for the creation of super PACs.

Writes Lyle Denniston on SCOTUSblog:

"While the Citizens United decision dealt with the spending side of federal campaign finance, theSpeechNow case was on the other side — raising funds. Thus, as a result of the two decisions put together, independent advocacy groups can raise as much and spend as much as they can and wish to do to support or oppose candidates for federal office." 

What is SpeechNow.org?

According to SCOTUSblog, SpeechNow was created specifically to spend money advocating for the election or defeat of federal political candidates. It was founded by David Keating, who at the time headed the conservative, anti-tax group Club for Growth.