A Free Speech Icon Turns 100

March 9, 2023 | Luke Wachob

In a long and distinguished career in public service, James L. Buckley held office as a U.S. Senator, an undersecretary of state, and a federal judge. Today, he turns 100 years old.

Among his many accomplishments, then-Senator Buckley brought the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court’s seminal ruling in Buckley v. Valeo. For nearly 50 years, that decision has set the terms for legal debates about government efforts to regulate political speech and campaigns. In crucial moments, it has served as a backstop for Americans’ First Amendment rights to join together in support of a cause and speak to fellow citizens about public issues and candidates.

Most recently, Buckley played a major role in the Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling in Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta. That decision struck down the California Attorney General’s demand for nonprofit donor lists as unconstitutional under the First Amendment. In response, a number of states have acted to improve their legal protections for personal privacy.

The Buckley case began when Congress passed extreme restrictions on political speech in 1974 through amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). The first version of that law, passed in 1971, had already been abused by the Nixon administration to prosecute proponents of his impeachment and stifle criticism from nonprofits like the ACLU, but the 1974 amendments were even more draconian.

They placed such low limits on the amounts candidates could raise and spend in campaigns that most challengers would never be able to overcome the advantages of an incumbent. After all, the typical elected official begins a re-election campaign with greater name recognition, more media coverage, more past supporters to call on, and more assistance from party leaders than their opponents.

Advocacy groups felt the pain, too. FECA limited groups to spending just $1,000 per election on speech “relative” to a federal candidate – sweeping language that placed all sorts of nonprofits at risk of unprecedented regulation and censorship by the federal government. Organizations like the ACLU (who helped Buckley bring the lawsuit), NRA, NAACP, right-to-life groups, and other organizations that reference elected officials when discussing policy issues would have been effectively muzzled. In addition, their donors would have been publicly exposed, subjecting them to harassment and intimidation.

On the decision’s 40th anniversary in 2016, Buckley recounted his concerns about FECA:

“When the legislation came to the Senate floor, I felt its restrictions on challengers were constitutionally suspect; that they were very bad policy, and I vigorously opposed them. So, when the legislation was enacted into law the only recourse was to test its constitutionality in court. And in this noble enterprise I was joined by a half-dozen or so enlightened co-plaintiffs.

At the outset, it is instructive to look at the diverse plaintiffs in Buckley. What we had in common was not ideology, but our status as political outsiders. Although I was a U.S. senator at the time, I had squeaked into office four years earlier as a third-party candidate. My co-plaintiffs included former Senator Eugene McCarthy, who in 1968 had bucked his party’s establishment by running a presidential primary campaign effective enough to cause Lyndon Johnson to withdraw his candidacy for reelection. Other plaintiffs included the very conservative American Conservative Union, the equally liberal New York Civil Liberties Union, and Mr. Stewart Mott, a wealthy sponsor of liberal causes who had contributed $220,000 to the McCarthy presidential campaign.

What we all had in common was a concern that the 1974 Act would effectively squeeze independent voices and reform movements out of the political process by making it even more difficult than it already was to raise effective challenges to the political status quo. We believed that the Act’s restrictions were fundamentally flawed, both constitutionally and as a matter of public policy.

The core value protected by the First Amendment’s speech clause is the freedom of political speech.”

The Buckley ruling is complicated, striking down some portions of the law while upholding others. Still other provisions were upheld only after the Court had carefully limited their meaning and application. Fortunately, the law’s general disclosure of nonprofit donors was struck down, as were the spending limits on candidates and groups. Those limits, the Court observed, “would appear to exclude all citizens and groups except candidates, political parties, and the institutional press from any significant use of the most effective modes of communication.”

The Buckley ruling upheld donor disclosure requirements for campaign groups and donors who earmark their giving for campaign spending, while sharply limiting the law’s impact on nonprofits and other independent speakers. The decision drew battle lines that defenders of free speech and would-be censors still fight over today. But the victories secured in Buckley were crucial, and for that, we have James L. Buckley and a handful of other brave co-plaintiffs to thank.

To learn more about James L. Buckley’s remarkable life and career, check out Matthew Continetti’s article in National Review, “James L. Buckley At 100”:

“Whatever the office he occupied, James exhibited the same dignity, consideration, reserve, and conviction. He has defended the American system of checks and balances and federalism. His books advocate limiting government through block-granting federal grants-in-aid to the states, establishing term limits, and abiding by the original understanding of the Constitution. Nor has he wavered from the credo he set forth in the preface to his 1975 book, If Men Were Angels, where he wrote, ‘I believe that in the last analysis the most important thing in social and political life is freedom, and I believe that it is because of the safeguards written into the Constitution, and the character of the American people, that we have enjoyed it in so great a measure.’”

To read the full article, click here or go to: https://www.aei.org/op-eds/james-l-buckley-at-100/.