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Policy: Law

Supreme Court's McCutcheon decision strengthens First Amendment rights

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Supreme Court,First Amendment,Freedom of Speech,Freedom of Assembly,Law,Constitution

A big part of politics is getting together with people who agree with you about government and want to do something about it.

Maybe that's one reason why the Democrats and Republicans are called “political parties.” A Supreme Court decision last week struck a big blow for your First Amendment right to get together with like-minded candidates.

The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission, struck down the aggregate contribution limits — meaning that so long as a contributor stays within the base candidate contribution limits (currently $5,200 per candidate for an election cycle), he may give to as many candidates as he likes.

But don't miss that the Court clarified that political contributions are part of the freedom to associate. In the opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “The First Amendment safeguards an individual's right to participate in the public debate through political expression and political association.”

That is because the First Amendment guarantees five freedoms: religion, speech, press, petition and assembly.

Part of the freedom of assembly is the freedom to associate -- whether that's with the Rotary Club, the Sierra Club, National Rifle Association or a neighborhood association.

But people sometimes like political candidates and want to associate with them, too. Charismatic leaders attract people who want to help the cause -- whether that cause is President Obama's “Change We Can Believe In,” the "Ron Paul Revolution" or something else.

Contributing money to a politician is a way of associating. In the Court’s words, “When an individual contributes money to a candidate … [t]he contribution serves as a general expression of support for the candidate and his views and serves to affiliate a person with a candidate.”

By putting money on the line, the contributor proves devotion to the candidate’s ideals.

For a long time, the law limited a person’s association rights to only nine federal candidates under the aggregate limits.

However, the McCutcheon decision struck down that restriction, saying, “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.”

This isn’t about speech by itself, but the right of people to help out others in causes and candidates they believe in.

By limiting the contributor to associating with only nine candidates, the law forced people to try to help in other ways.

Once they could no longer give directly to the candidates, people tried to give to political parties, but parties had limits too.

So, they gave to so-called “501(c)” organizations — such as the Sierra Club or the NRA. (Section 501(c) is the part of the tax code that regulates these organizations.)

But these groups are a poor substitute for engaging directly in politics. Federal law limits the amount of political activity they can engage in.

But they could talk about more than nine candidates in an election cycle, and do so while talking about important issues like the environment or helping the homeless find jobs.

In other words, people across the country looked for ways to directly link with the people who want to be in office, but various limits kept getting in the way.

Now, this is no longer an issue. If you want to support 10 candidates, you can. Directly. Unconditionally — up to the legal maximum per individual candidate.

This will ease the pressure on 501(c) organizations to get too involved in politics and give the political parties a stronger voice in election campaigns.

People will be able to give freely to those candidates they like — but not more than the $5,200 base limit per election cycle per candidate.

Chances are you can’t afford to give $5,200 to a candidate, but others who associate with the candidate you support can. By associating with that candidate and other supporters, your views get more distribution, too.

Coming together and pooling resources in politics is not evil. That’s the American way. We gather our time and money and energy to promote the causes we believe in. Such causes can often be candidates.

The Supreme Court just strengthened the freedom of association for all of us.

Tyler Martinez is a staff attorney at the Center for Competitive Politics, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of McCutcheon.
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