In the first major campaign finance decision since the U.S. Supreme Court tore down restrictions on corporate spending during elections, a federal appeals court ruled today that the government also could not limit donations to independent political groups.
The case, SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, was the first serious test of the justices’ ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. In that case, the high court found that bans on independent expenditures by corporations that did not coordinate with campaigns were unconstitutional. Today’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit essentially expanded the bounds of that ruling.
In an opinion written by Chief Judge David Sentelle, the unanimous en banc court found that because Citizens United held there was no corruption-fighting purpose in limiting independent spending, there was also no reason to cap the donations to groups that would be doing that spending.
“[T]he First Amendment cannot be encroached upon for naught,” Sentelle wrote.
The suit was brought by nonprofit group SpeechNow, represented by Institute for Justice lawyer Steven Simpson. The group challenged an FEC opinion that would have forced it to organize as a political committee and abide by certain reporting and funding requirements, such as caps on the amount given by individual donors.
The FEC had tried to argue that Citizens United did not apply in the case because the earlier decision involved spending limits, not contribution limits. It said restrictions on the latter should be subject to a less stringent standard of review.
The court said the standard of review did not matter, because the government simply had no interest in limiting contributions to independent groups. The court emphasized that its decision applied only to independent groups like SpeechNow and would have no effect on limits on direct contributions to candidates.
Despite scrapping the donation limits, the court ruled that SpeechNow still has to organize as a political committee and fulfill the FEC’s financial reporting requirements. The court said that complying with those rules would place a minimal burden on the group’s First Amendment rights.
“[T]he public has an interest in knowing who is speaking about a candidate and who is funding that speech,” Sentelle wrote. “Further, requiring disclosure of such information deters and helps expose violations of other campaign finance restrictions, such as those barring contributions from foreign corporations or individuals.”
Institute for Justice lawyer Bert Gall said that critics of Citizens United who believed it would give large corporations too much leverage in politics should celebrate today’s decision. He said it would now make it easier for less wealthy individuals to pool their resources.
“Now free speech in America is free for everyone,” Gall said.
An FEC spokeswoman said the commission was still studying the opinion.