Draft House Relief Bill Threatens First Amendment Rights

“The Government cannot say, ‘Your rights or your economic life.’”

March 24, 2020   •  By IFS Staff   •  
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Washington, DC – A draft House response to the coronavirus pandemic would order American businesses to sacrifice First Amendment rights in exchange for emergency relief. Businesses cannot be forced to give up their rights, the Institute for Free Speech said today.

“The Government cannot say, ‘your rights or your economic life,’” said Institute for Free Speech Chairman Bradley A. Smith. “Just as the Bush administration could not have conditioned Hurricane Katrina relief on a requirement that recipients cease criticizing the federal government, Congress cannot ask Americans to choose between their constitutional liberties and indispensable relief funds.”

The draft bill, known as the “Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act,” specifies that “[a]ny corporation that receives Federal aid related to COVID-19 shall…not carry out any Federal lobbying activities.” Yet lobbying is protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees “the right … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Congress cannot condition emergency relief on the surrender of a civil right.

The bill also mandates that publicly-traded businesses that accept relief must permanently report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) their dues and contributions to trade associations and certain kinds of nonprofit organizations. As with the ban on lobbying, this policy has no relation to the present crisis, but is instead a longstanding goal of some in Congress who wish to “chill” support for and the speech of disfavored trade associations and nonprofits. Virtually the same reporting requirements were included in H.R. 5929, a bill introduced in February with no relation to COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdowns across the country are unique crises that call for Congressional action. Government must not use this moment of desperation to enact unconstitutional laws in an attempt to force Americans to give up First Amendment rights.

To read an analysis of the draft bill’s harms to free speech, click here or go to: https://www.ifs.org/expert-analysis/house-draft-covid-19-emergency-bill-contains-hidden-threats-to-first-amendment-rights/.

About the Institute for Free Speech

The Institute for Free Speech is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that promotes and defends the First Amendment rights to freely speak, assemble, publish, and petition the government. Originally known as the Center for Competitive Politics, it was founded in 2005 by Bradley A. Smith, a former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission. The Institute is the nation’s largest organization dedicated solely to protecting First Amendment political rights.

IFS Staff

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