Free Speech Coalition fights grassroots bill

MCLEAN, VA: Legislation on the floor of the Senate this week that would regulate big-money grassroots campaigns has advocacy groups and direct marketers saying it tramples on the First Amendment.

MCLEAN, VA: Legislation on the floor of the Senate this week that would regulate big-money grassroots campaigns has advocacy groups and direct marketers saying it tramples on the First Amendment.

The bill, S. 2349, Title II, includes a requirement for organizations that spend $25,000 or more per quarter in grassroots lobbying efforts to report back to Congress. It aims to prevent corporate interests from shrouding their activities, such as large advertising campaigns, behind a nonprofit veil.

But opponents, such as the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), said this would punish reputable organizations and become a way for Congress to control communication to the general public.

"Our concern with the legislation is that it's a serious infringement of the free speech rights of individuals, as well as the right to petition Congress," said Richard Dingman, senior counsel for the FSC, which represents communications companies and nonprofits against excessive government regulation of free speech.

"These days, $25,000 is less than the postage for one national direct mailing," added Mark Fitzgibbons, president of corporate and legal affairs at FSC member American Target Advertising. His company primarily handles direct mail projects.

The controversial proposal (similar to a lobbying bill that passed last year), which has a number of Democratic co-sponsors, is part of a lobbying ethics package been reintroduced to the 110th Congress. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), a proponent, has said this package would help serve as a message to the people that Congress would not stand for another Jack Abramoff-type scandal. 

If the package is passed, it would establish a public database for lobbying disclosure. Congress is also considering a measure that would extend the time former congressman would have to wait before becoming a lobbyist from one to two years and force disclosure of earmarking.

Public Citizen, a Washington DC-based consumer advocacy group founded in 1971 by Ralph Nader, supports the measure.

"They're worried about their bottom line," said Laura MacCleary, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division. "Any regular sized nonprofit would not be able to spend that kind of money. This is a trumped up controversy."

But Fitzgibbons said the bill overreaches.

"If they really want to regulate the fake grassroots groups, they'd need to write a bill specifically designed for that," said Fitzgibbons. "This affects the smallest of the small, the weakest of the weak."

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