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First Amendment Library:
Jan W. Baran


The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, 2 U.S.C. _ 431 et seq., imposes limits on contributions to candidates for federal office. The Act, for example, provides that individuals may contribute no more than $1,000 to any candidate with respect to any election. 2 U.S.C. _ 441a. The Act similarly provides that multicandidate political committees may contribute no more than $5,000 to any candidate. Expenditures that are made by a person or committee in cooperation with a candidate are deemed to be contributions under the Act. Political committee expenditures are also deemed to be contributions attributable to a particular candidate if the expenditures create a communication that refers to a clearly identified candidate and contains an electioneering message. In Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976), the Court held that limitations on expenditures for political speech must be necessary to achieve a compelling governmental interest and must be narrowly tailored to advance that interest. In Buckley, the Court also held that the First Amendment prohibited restrictions on an individual's ability to make expenditures not coordinated with a candidate. In Federal Election Commission v. National Conservative Political Action Committee, 470 U.S. 480 (1985), the Court extended the holdings in Buckley to apply to "independent" expenditures made by political committees. In early 1986, the Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee sponsored radio advertisements critical of then-Representative Tim Wirth, a Democrat seeking his party's nomination for the U.S. Senate. At the time that the advertisement was broadcast, the Republican Party had not yet nominated a candidate for the Senate seat. After the Colorado Democratic Party filed an administrative complaint under the Act, the Federal Election Commission determined that the expenditure for the advertisement was a coordinated party expenditure subject to the limitations of the Act. The FEC then filed a civil complaint in the federal district court, claiming that the Republican Committee had exceeded the limits set forth in the Act. The Committee argued that the advertisement was not an expenditure in connection with a general election and that the Act violated the Committee's rights of free speech and association. The district court agreed that the expenditure was not made in connection with a general election and that it therefore was not subject to the Act. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the advertisement was subject to the Act because it was directed at a clearly identified candidate and contained an electioneering message. The court of appeals also rejected the Committee's First Amendment argument.


In 1986, the Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee paid for several radio ads attacking the voting record of Tim Wirth, the potential Democratic senatorial candidate. The ads ran before the Republican nominee for senator had been selected. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) filed an action alleging that the party had violated the Party Expenditure Provision (PEP) of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 by exceeding spending limits for political parties. The Colorado Republican Party sued in federal court, claiming that the provision violated the First Amendment. The case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission, 518 U.S. 604 (1996)("Colorado I") that the provision could not be applied to independent expenditures by political parties. In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a plurality decision that the PEP was unconstitutional as applied to the particular expenditure at issue. The Court characterized the radio ads as "independent expenditures" (not subject to the PEP) as opposed to "coordinated expenditures" (subject to the PEP). The majority determined the Wirth ads were "independent expenditures" because the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party had approved the ad and had not consulted with the respective Republican candidates. The Colorado I court then remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings with regard to the broader issue of whether the PEP of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 violates a political party's First Amendment rights by limiting the amount of money a party may spend in "coordination" with its congressional candidates. Four justices in Colorado I (Thomas, Scalia, Kennedy and Rehnquist) ruled that they would have struck down the PEP with regards to both independent and coordinated expenditures. In 1999, the U.S. District Court granted summary judgment to the Colorado Republican Party, ruling that the limits on political parties' coordinated expenditures violated the First Amendment. In May of 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari on Oct. 10, 2000.