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Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel arrives to speak during the Republican National Convention from the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (AP) Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel arrives to speak during the Republican National Convention from the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (AP)

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel arrives to speak during the Republican National Convention from the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (AP)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman March 1, 2021

Yes, the ACLU has criticized HR 1. Here’s why

If Your Time is short

  • H.R. 1 includes sections on absentee voting, in-person voting, campaign finance and ethics. 

  • The ACLU told lawmakers in 2019 that it opposed the bill. The group said it supported provisions to expand voting rights, but opposed campaign finance provisions that it said would limit free speech.

  • In 2021, the ACLU didn’t use the word “oppose” in their letter to lawmakers. But the group still has multiple criticisms of the bill. An attorney for the organization said it strongly supports many provisions.

A major Democratic bill that aims to expand voting rights and overhaul campaign finance rules has resulted in some unusual allies.

"There’s a reason even the ACLU opposes #HR1 – it threatens our freedom of speech," tweeted Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel.

Known as the For the People Act, the 791-page H.R. 1 combines proposals for absentee voting, in-person voting, and campaign finance and ethics.

The ACLU supports the bill’s provisions to expand voting rights and while it has criticisms of the legislation, its senior counsel told PolitiFact that it has not formally opposed the 2021 version, saying "a serious legislative effort to restore and strengthen our republic is needed now more than ever."  But McDaniel is right in that the organization says certain campaign finance provisions would limit free speech — and the ACLU has formally opposed the bill in the past.

With the House poised to vote on H.R. 1, we asked for evidence behind McDaniel’s claim. A spokesperson for the RNC pointed to the ACLU’s own writings — letters to lawmakers and statements issued in 2019 and 2021 detailing their criticisms of H.R. 1.

ACLU objects to certain provisions about campaign finance

The ACLU is officially nonpartisan, but its advocacy for immigrants, the LGBTQ community, women and prisoners is often aligned with policies supported by the left. At the same time, the ACLU’s advocacy for free speech can sometimes put it on the same side as groups or individuals on the right.

The ACLU has long opposed certain campaign finance proposals. 

In 2019, the ACLU told lawmakers it "opposes H.R.1" and asked lawmakers to amend the bill to "avoid unconstitutionally burdening political speech." The ACLU said it supported goals in the bill to make it easier to vote, including restoring voting rights for felons, stopping the purge of inactive voters, increasing online voter registration and providing for no excuse absentee voting. 

That initial bill passed the House but never reached a vote in the Senate.

When Democrats introduced a new version in January, the ACLU told lawmakers that it had "significant constitutional concerns."

"We have not officially opposed the bill in the 117th Congress," Kathleen Ruane, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, told PolitiFact. "Following the Trump administration’s relentless attacks on our democratic system of government, a serious legislative effort to restore and strengthen our republic is needed now more than ever, and we strongly support many of the voting rights provisions in H.R. 1."

But the ACLU said requirements for organizations to disclose certain donors are "onerous and dangerous."

The ACLU’s 2021 letter largely highlights its objections to the Shield Act and the Disclose Act, two Democratic bills rolled into H.R. 1. 

While the ACLU said it agrees with the Shield Act’s goal to limit interference of foreign adversaries in elections, the act goes too far. 

The group objected to a provision that makes campaign finance law violations deportable offenses. It also argued in 2019 that the Shield Act would prohibit foreign governments or foreign parties from creating paid ads. 

"If the governments of Germany, Canada, and France wanted to take out a nationwide advertisement during the Super Bowl in 2020 explaining why it is so important for the United States to recommit to the Paris Climate Agreement, the Shield Act would forbid that speech," the ACLU wrote.

Featured Fact-check

The Disclose Act requires additional disclosures related to political spending, including further restrictions on foreign money in elections. It demands that organizations that make campaign-related disbursements of more than $10,000 in an election reporting cycle disclose the names of donors who give $10,000 or more. The legislation makes it harder for "dark money" groups to avoid disclosures.

Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts, as long as they don't directly coordinate with candidates or party committees. Super PACs publicly disclose their receipts and expenditures, though they sometimes get big donations from nonprofits, which don't have to disclose their donors.

The ACLU said it supports mandated reporting of spending for public communications that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate for office, but it said the Disclose Act goes beyond those bounds. The legislation "could harm political advocacy and expose non-profit donors to harassment and threats of violence should their support for organizations be subject to forced disclosure," the ACLU wrote.

In 2019, the ACLU also said it objected to at least sections of other legislation incorporated into H.R. 1, calling some of the language too vague or invasive of donor privacy.

Reactions to ACLU’s objections

McDaniel’s tweet maintains that H.R. 1 "threatens our freedom of speech" — and she posits that she is in agreement with the ACLU on this point.

The liberal Brennan Center for Justice at NYU disagrees with the ACLU’s conclusions that the bill will interfere with free speech, said Daniel Weiner, the center’s deputy director of election reform. Weiner said the goal isn’t to target everyday Americans making small donations, but rather big corporations and powerful interest groups. 

"It’s misleading to characterize transparency measures as a significant restriction on freedom of speech," he said. "The notion that these (powerful) groups will be shrinking violets who might get criticized from spending and it might drive them from the public square is a bit much to take."

In a letter to lawmakers in support of H.R. 1, a few former ACLU officials joined with several constitutional scholars in calling the legislation the "most significant pro-democracy legislation since the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

"We do not view First Amendment concerns over the precise scope of disclosure requirements affecting large donors to tax-exempt organizations operating on the margins of electoral politics as outweighing the need for expeditious enactment of the clearly desirable aspects of H.R. 1 into law," they wrote.

The Institute for Free Speech, a conservative group that advocates against campaign finance restrictions, sides with the ACLU in arguing that it would chill free speech.

"These advocates of restricting free speech want to have it both ways, by arguing that restricting speech is necessary or beneficial, but also that what they propose does not restrict speech," said Bradley A. Smith, chairman of the institute and a professor at Capital University Law School, in an email to PolitiFact.

Our ruling

McDaniel tweeted that the "ACLU opposes HR 1" on grounds that "it threatens our freedom of speech."

The ACLU opposed the 2019 version of H.R. 1, saying multiple provisions would limit free speech. When Democrats unveiled the bill again in January, ACLU said it still held many of their earlier concerns and called some sections "onerous and dangerous." But the ACLU has stopped short of opposing the bill in 2021. 

While it is clear that freedom of speech for political donors is among the ACLU’s concerns, the ACLU has not opposed the bill in 2021.

The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. We rate it Half True.

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Our Sources

Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, Tweet, Feb. 22, 2021

ACLU, Letter to lawmakers about H.R. 1, March 1, 2019

ACLU blog, Congress, Let’s Fix the Problems in H.R. 1 So We Can Enact the Bill’s Much-Needed Reforms, March 5, 2019

ACLU, Letter to lawmakers about H.R. 1, March 6, 2019

ACLU, Letter to lawmakers about H.R. 1, 2021

Brookings Op-Ed by Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, Not a Danger to Free Speech, July 14, 1998

Former Leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union and Concerned First Amendment Scholars, Letter to lawmakers about H.R. 1, Feb. 18, 2021

ACLU, Statement about campaign finance reform, March 1, 2001

ACLU, ACLU urges no vote on Disclose Act, July 26, 2010

ACLU, Letter on Shield Act, Oct. 16, 2019

Volokh Conspiracy by Profs. Ronald Collins and David Skover, A brief history of the ACLU and campaign finance, March 17, 2014

Congress.gov, H.R.4617 - Stopping Harmful Interference in Elections for a Lasting Democracy Act, Oct. 8, 2019

Congress.gov, S.1147 - Disclose Act of 2019, April 11, 2019

Congress.gov, H.R.4054 - Stand By Every Ad Act, July 25, 2019

Congress.gov, S.1356 - Honest Ads Act, May 7, 2019

Congress.gov, H.R.4055 - Stop Super PAC–Candidate Coordination Act, July 25, 2019

Congress.gov, H.R.812 - Conflicts from Political Fundraising Act of 2019, Jan. 28, 2019

Congress.gov, H.R.209 - Ethics in Public Service Act, Jan. 3, 2019

Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, Brennan Center Statement in Support of the For the People Act, Introduced Today, Jan. 4, 2021

Institute for Free Speech, H.R. 1 and S. 1 Resource Guide (2021), Jan. 25, 2021

Common Cause, For the People Act, Accessed Feb. 25, 2021

Rev.com, Donald Trump CPAC 2021 speech transcript, Feb. 28, 2021

PolitiFact, Elizabeth Warren largely right about rivals' reliance on super PACs, Feb. 11, 2020

Email interview, Zach Parkinson, Republican National Committee spokesperson, Feb. 25, 2021

Email interview, Kathleen Ruane, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, Feb. 26, 2021

Email interview, Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs at Common Cause, Feb. 25, 2021

Email interview, Catherine J. Ross, George Washington University Law School professor, Feb. 26, 2021

Email interview, Bradley A. Smith, Capital University Law School professor, Feb. 26, 2021

Email interview, Richard Briffault, Columbia Law School professor, Feb. 26, 2021

Telephone interview, Daniel Weiner, deputy director of election reform at the Brennan Center for Justice, Feb. 26, 2021

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Yes, the ACLU has criticized HR 1. Here’s why

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