Should campaign donations be considered political speech?
April 10, 2014
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, 5-4, that limits on the total amount that a person can contribute to candidates and parties during a two-year election cycle are unconstitutional because they violate the First Amendment right to free speech.
In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the majority opinion said: “There is no right in our democracy more basic, than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”
The court ruled that while individuals still have to limit each contribution to $2,600 per candidate, they can now donate that amount to as many candidates as they wish in an election cycle. Previously, the overall limit was $48,600 for contributions to all federal candidates. The separate total cap on contributions to political party committees is $74,600.
The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., found that the caps on spending violated the First Amendment. He said political contributions to campaigns, candidates, super PACs, and political interest groups were a form of political speech, therefore protected. Roberts even likened it to the tradition of newspapers endorsing candidates.
Roberts wrote: “The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”
With the Supreme Court’s ruling, individuals can now donate to an unlimited number of candidates and political party committees in an election cycle. Supporters of McCutcheon say that the limit on the size of an individual donation to a candidate or political party committee should be scrapped, too.
The eight states that have aggregate contribution limits are now left to decide whether they will fight to keep those limits. Both Maryland and Massachusetts have suspended the enforcement of limits while they review the ruling and how it would apply to their laws.
Justice Stephen J. Breyer, who wrote the dissenting opinion, said the ruling would lead to money becoming even a larger player in state and local elections and would allow “a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or candidate’s campaign.”
His dissent also raised the specter of corruption and the dwindling influence of individuals in political campaigns. Breyer said candidates might feel obligated to pass laws that favor their donors over their constituents.
“The anticorruption interest that drives Congress to regulate campaign contributions is a far broader, more important interest than the plurality acknowledges,” he wrote. “It is an interest in maintaining the integrity of our public governmental institutions.”
“Where enough money calls the tune,” Breyer wrote, “the general public will not be heard.”
The ruling is another move by the Supreme Court to strike down limits on election spending. In 2010, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court abolished limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions.
What do you think?
Do you agree with the majority or the dissenting opinion? Should a campaign donation be considered political speech and protected by the First Amendment? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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