Federal appeals court rules nonprofit political spending limits unconstitutional

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Friday that Federal Election Commission (FEC) [official website] regulations restricting the political spending of nonprofit groups violates the First Amendment. The suit was brought by pro-choice group EMILY'S List [advocacy website], which challenged recent FEC rules limiting the spending of nonprofits on election-related activities, including advertising and voter registration efforts. Finding the regulations to be in violation of the First Amendment rights to political expression and association, the majority reversed the lower court's ruling. The court relied on the US Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo [opinion text], which held that "contribution and expenditure limitations operate in an area of the most fundamental First Amendment activities." Although the court recognized an established government interest in combating corruption, which can often justify campaign finance regulation, they found the interest to only apply to contributions to candidates and parties. The majority relied on precedent, finding that:


The Supreme Court's case law establishes that those nonprofit entities, like individual citizens, are constitutionally entitled to raise and spend unlimited money in support of candidates for elected office – with the narrow exception that, under Austin, the Government may restrict to some degree how non-profits spend donations received from the general treasuries of for-profit corporations or unions.

In addition to First Amendment violations, the court found that certain provisions exceeded the FEC's regulatory authority under the Federal Election Campaign Act [text, PDF]. Under the statute, the court argued, the FEC cannot require nonprofits to use "hard money" for exclusively state and local election activities.

Campaign reform legislation has raised First Amendment concerns in the past. Earlier this month, the US Supreme Court heard re-arguments [JURIST report] in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission [Cornell LII backgrounder] to decide whether Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission [Oyez backgrounders] should be overturned in deciding the case. The case originally sought to decide if the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) [text, PDF] permits the Federal Election Commission (FEC) [official website] to regulate the release and advertising of a 90-minute documentary questioning then-Senator Hillary Clinton's (D-NY) qualifications to serve as US president. In August, a federal court held that a Connecticut campaign finance law [text] violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments [JURIST report]. The court held that the law, which provided public funding to candidates in elections for state offices, was a "severe burden on the political opportunity of minor party candidates."

 

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