This letter was obtained by the Daily Caller and is printed below in its entirety.
September 10, 2014
The Honorable Harry Reid The Honorable Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Senate Minority Leader
522 Hart Senate Office Building 317 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510 Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell:
I am writing to express the National Rifle Association’s strong opposition to S.J.R. 19, which proposes to amend the United States Constitution to allow Congress and the states to ban certain political speech now considered protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The more than five million members of the NRA depend on the Association to be its voice on Capitol Hill and in statehouses throughout the nation. As a voluntary membership organization, the NRA speaks for them. Without the support of its grassroots members, the NRA would not exist, nor would its message of support for the Second Amendment resonate so strongly with public officials. S.J.R. 19 is not aimed at “corporate dollars,” as its proponents like to pretend. It is aimed at the individual men and women who speak in concert through associational entities. It is these individual Americans who would be silenced under its terms.
In January 2010, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The decision invalidated restrictions on the ability of grassroots groups like the NRA and others–left and right, large and small–to speak freely at election time, simply because they organize themselves as corporations. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court was based on a simple proposition: “Premised on mistrust of governmental power, the First Amendment stands against attempts to disfavor certain subjects or viewpoints.” The Court found “no basis for the proposition that, in the context of political speech, the Government may impose restrictions on certain disfavored speakers.” It therefore unambiguously endorsed the principle that “the Government may not suppress political speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity.”
The late Sen. Paul Wellstone had said during the original debate over the legislation at issue in Citizens United that it was his intention to silence groups like the NRA. While Wellstone singled out the NRA, this law delivered a clear message to all Americans that concerted action to influence elections was officially disfavored. Under the terms of the law, speech was subject to increasing restrictions for the very reason that individuals took action as a group to deliver a unified message about a particular candidate close to an election. A more self-serving view for an incumbent politician, and a more dismissive view of the value of open and robust political debate, is hard to imagine.
Following the decision, proponents of the censorship it forbade cynically tried to employ the usual tropes of class warfare by portraying the Court’s opinion as elevating the political interests of wealthy corporations above those of individuals. As the decision noted, however, the law it invalidated also applied to nonprofit corporations and small, for-profit corporations with only single shareholders. The opinion also made the obvious point that “[a]ll speakers, including individuals and the media, use money amassed from the economic marketplace to fund their speech, and the First Amendment protects the resulting speech.”
Under the terms of S.J.R. 19, governmental authorities could “distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.” This, however, could have the effect of establishing a true plutocracy, in which the preferences of wealthy individuals prevailed even over a majority of the people, who might be left with no means of joining their resources and voices together to promote opposing views. Indeed, the corporate form is the very mechanism by which the NRA’s working class members currently have a fighting chance for their beliefs to compete in the marketplace of ideas with those of politically-active economic titans like Michael Bloomberg and George Soros.
It is not enough for the proponents of S.J.R. 19 that some in Congress responded to Citizens United with the onerous and byzantine provisions of the DISCLOSE Act, which unabashedly sought to test the limits of that decision in its chilling of associational speech. Apparently, nothing less than a complete silencing of grassroots opposition will suffice for them. The arrogance of this proposition is indeed breathtaking, as is the notion that Americans will embrace this attempt by the ruling class to muzzle it critics.
One final point worth noting is that the provision of the proposed amendment that states, “Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress or the States the power to abridge the freedom of the press,” not only would fail to act as a check on governmental power, it might well enlarge it. This is because “the press” has no fixed meaning in constitutional law. Congress and state legislatures could therefore use that language to seize the authority to determine what is and is not a protected media entity. Needless to say, media outlets that were favorable to incumbents could expect to fare far better than those who argued for changes of leadership or reform. Contrary to the theme of “sticking up for the little guy” that proponents of S.J.R. 19 try to spin, this could also favor established media organizations that are themselves divisions of large, for-profit corporations over upstart publications that are in the process of growing their audiences. Justice Kennedy recognized in Citizens United that Internet sources, such as blogs and social networking web sites, may increasingly provide citizens with significant information about political candidates and issues. Yet the non-establishment voices most apt to challenge authority could well be the ones most vulnerable to censorship under S.J.R. 19.
Because of the fundamental liberties that would be imperiled by S.J.R. 19, the NRA strongly opposes it. We will consider votes on this legislation in future candidate evaluations and notify our members accordingly. For now, at least, we maintain our voice. You can be assured we will use it in this debate.
Chris W. Cox
Executive Director, NRA-ILA