479 U. S. 238
December 15, 1986
Federal law made it illegal for any corporation to make any expenditures on political elections, unless they set up a special political committee with segregated financing. Massachusetts Citizens for Life (MCFL) was a pro-life group that incorporated itself as a non-profit to do its work. In 1978, MCFL published a voter guide that listed the positions of the candidates in the upcoming election on the abortion issue. The FEC brought action against MCFL for distributing this guide, and MCFL contested the application of the federal campaigning law in court.
The Court ruled 5-4 that the law was unconstitutional as applied to MCFL, because it unreasonably restricted the group’s right to free speech. Brennan wrote for the majority. First, he rejected arguments that publication of the guide was not an “expenditure” within the law’s meaning, and that the guide was not intended as a call to vote for certain candidates. Even the four dissenters agreed with those conclusions. Nonetheless, Brennan thought that the law swept too broadly with respect to MCFL, and thus ruled against the FEC.
He explained that campaign finance restrictions on corporations were intended to keep corporations from using massive company profits to disproportionately impact the political process, and also intended to prevent the use of a customer’s money on a cause he might disagree with. Because MCFL was a non-profit, and actually dedicated to the pro-life cause, the goals behind the law did not apply. Brennan also showed that setting up the special political committee provided for in the law would be extremely burdensome for MCFL, and might operate in a chilling fashion on their speech rights.
Brennan’s discussion on that last point was not joined by O’Connor, who wrote a concurring opinion explaining why. Reading it though, I still can’t figure out where it is that they actually disagree. Rehnquist wrote a dissent, and he was joined by White, Blackmun, and Stevens. Its basic gist was that Congress very clearly intended its law to apply to all corporations, and that prior Court decisions had usually not exempted organizations from campaign finance restrictions just because a particular application bore little relation to the law’s underlying goals. White, a staunch adherent to precedent, joined Rehnquist’s dissent even while noting that he had originally disagreed with many of those previous rulings.
This case feels like something out of a bizarre parallel universe. A hyper-liberal Justice writing a majority opinion against a campaign finance law? When the target of the law’s application was a pro-life organization!?? I’m starting to think that some of today’s great political fault lines weren’t quite so set in stone back then. As for the decision itself, I think Brennan got it right; the First Amendment values at stake do trump precedent and Congressional desire for uniformity. Also, maybe I’m just paranoid, but I can’t help but wonder if the FEC deliberately decided to target MCFL because of its pro-life views. It certainly wouldn’t have been the first or last time that a government agency bullied the right to life movement.