Interest Groups

Interest Groups and Free Speech

Most people would agree that interest groups have a right under the Constitution to promote a particular point of view. What people do not necessarily agree upon, however, is the extent to which certain interest group and lobbying activities are protected under the First Amendment.

In addition to free speech rights, the First Amendment grants people the right to assemble. We saw above that pluralists even argued that assembling in groups is natural and that people will gravitate toward others with similar views. Most people acknowledge the right of others to assemble to voice unpopular positions, but this was not always the case. At various times, groups representing racial and religious minorities, communists, and members of the LGBT community have had their First Amendment rights to speech and assembly curtailed. And as noted above, organizations like the ACLU support free speech rights regardless of whether the speech is popular.

Today, the debate about interest groups often revolves around whether the First Amendment protects the rights of individuals and groups to give money, and whether government can regulate the use of this money. In 1971, the Federal Election Campaign Act was passed, setting limits on how much presidential and vice-presidential candidates and their families could donate to their own campaigns.[25] The law also allowed corporations and unions to form PACs and required public disclosure of campaign contributions and their sources. In 1974, the act was amended in an attempt to limit the amount of money spent on congressional campaigns. The amended law banned the transfer of union, corporate, and trade association money to parties for distribution to campaigns.

In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court upheld Congress’s right to regulate elections by restricting contributions to campaigns and candidates. However, at the same time, it overturned restrictions on expenditures by candidates and their families, as well as total expenditures by campaigns.[26] In 1979, an exemption was granted to get-out-the-vote and grassroots voter registration drives, creating what has become known as the soft-money loophole; soft money was a way in which interests could spend money on behalf of candidates without being restricted by federal law. To close this loophole, Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold sponsored the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002 to ban parties from collecting and distributing unregulated money.

Some continued to argue that campaign expenditures are a form of speech, a position with which two recent Supreme Court decisions are consistent. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission[27] and the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission[28] cases opened the door for a substantially greater flow of money into elections. Citizens United overturned the soft money ban of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. Essentially, the Supreme Court argued in a 5–4 decision that these entities had free speech rights, much like individuals, and that free speech included campaign spending. The McCutcheon decision further extended spending allowances based on the First Amendment by striking down aggregate contribution limits. These limits put caps on the total contributions allowed and some say have contributed to a subsequent increase in groups and lobbying activities.

An image of a corpulent cartoon figure wearing a suit, hands in pockets, with a bag of money instead of a head. Text under the figure reads
Figure 4. With his Harper’s Weekly cartoon of William “Boss” Tweed with a moneybag for a head, Thomas Nast provided an enduring image of the corrupting power of money on politics. Some denounce “fat cat” lobbyists and the effects of large sums of money in lobbying, while others suggest that interests have every right to spend money to achieve their objectives.