When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its much maligned Citizens United ruling, declaring that financial expenditures on behalf of political candidates are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment, it specifically upheld requirements that individual donors to political groups be identified and disclosed to the public. After the ruling, interest groups employed a variety of tactics to evade disclosiong donors’ identities. Millions of dollars of so-called “dark money” has been spent on subsequent elections.
On Friday, a federal judge struck a blow for transparency, invalidating a Federal Elections Commission regulation that allowed donors to dark-money groups to remain anonymous. U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell ruled that protecting the identities of donors to nonprofit groups that engage in independent political activity violated the clear intent of Congress that the source of money flowing into federal campaigns should be disclosed.
The ruling may require such groups to reveal the identities of donors of $200 or more if the groups spend more than $250 attempting to influence federal elections.
The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington against a group founded by Karl Rove that spent $6 million trying to unseat Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, in 2012 but failed to disclose the donors of that money.
CREW initially filed a complaint with the FEC, which ruled that donors had to be disclosed only if their contribution was earmarked for a specific ad, based on a regulation that is 30 years old. Howell’s ruling said the FEC’s interpretation of that rule was far too narrow.
If money is speech and protected by the First Amendment, then voters should have the right to know where that money comes from. Only then can they evaluate the messages they are seeing on television, in newspaper ads or on the internet.
Donors who seek to express themselves by paying for political advertising should have the courage of their convictions and put their names where their money is. If they’re not willing to do that, they should stay out of the debate.