Disputes about free speech characterized this afternoon’s N.C. House debate on H.B. 1847.

The House voted 87-27 to support the bill, which will place new restrictions on so-called “527” political groups. The bill now heads to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature.

Various “527” groups have played a growing role in N.C. politics in recent years. They’ve sponsored media campaigns linked to elections. The groups are named for the federal tax code that applies to them. The groups can accept unlimited contributions from corporations.

A 2004 state law limits the time frame in which a 527 group can fund campaign “electioneering.” That law restricts 527 funding in the 30 days leading up to a primary and the 60 days that precede a general election.

That law also requires reporting of 527 spending on mailings that targeted 5,000 or more addresses, as well as spending on telephone campaigns.

If Easley signs the current bill into law, the reporting requirement will apply to mailings sent to 2,500 addresses and calls to 2,500 or more lines in a given House or Senate district.

The bill clarifies that corporations and unions cannot fund the election material. Media outlets are exempted.

Some Republicans raised objections. Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, alluded to the federal Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798 as he blasted the bill. He encouraged his colleagues “not to squelch speech.”

This type of bill is essentially government telling critics to shut up. We don’t want to hear what you have to say. We especially don’t want to hear what you have to say around election time. 

Supporters disagreed with Stam’s characterization. House Majority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange:

We have all recognized and seen the effects of those persons or corporations with a lot of money and who are willing to spend it, and who are in a position — because of constitutional law — we are very limited in any way to restrict it. And so those who run for office are vulnerable to wealthy persons who are willing to simply … spend large sums of money. As I said, this bill is a response to that. It basically seeks to cut down on the anonymity.

Another bill sponsor, Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, rejected arguments that the bill limits free speech:

This bill does not restrict any speech whatsoever.

The state Board of Elections is scheduled next month to hear a complaint linked to the most recent 527 campaigns. House Speaker Pro Tem Richard Morgan, R-Moore, will air his complaint Aug. 29.