In a first step out on political reform (setting aside his executive order on lobbying), Donald Trump promised churches he would relieve them of the restrictions of the Johnson amendment on campaign activity. He didn't go into any detail.
But over time there have been different proposals for protecting religious institutions’ political speech. One of them is arguably sensible, while another, more aggressive reform of this nature is best avoided.
Attention began to turn more widely to this topic when in the Bush 43 years there was a suggestion that IRS was monitoring sermons and prepared to act against churches where it found campaign content in speech from the pulpit. A notorious case involved a sermon that was critical of the war in Iraq and included favorable comments about Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and critical ones of his opponent George W. Bush. Nothing happened; the IRS backed off. But it remains the case that while the Service seems to have no particular appetite for regulatory action based on this kind of speech, it could, if it wished. And as the Bush/Kerry episode revealed, the issue can cut in either partisan or ideological direction.
That is one issue, and a reform has been advanced to address it. Its sole point would be to allow for speech in the ordinary course of communications by a religious institution. In 2013, an organization called the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations recommended that religious institutions be free to make communications "related to one or more political candidates or campaigns... made in the ordinary course of… regular and customary… exempt purposes," provided that the expenses incurred are de minimis. The exemption would apply specifically to sermons delivered "as part of a religious organization's regular and customary worship services."
Progressives thinking about the experience with reform have to grapple with its implications for mobilization, for effective political speech and action. As previously noted here, one traditional reform objective – – regulating issue advertising – – bears reconsideration For years, a priority has been to expand the rules to cover certain issue advertising within election seasons. The authors of McCain Feingold settled on what they took to be an objective test--define the election season as a month to two months before an election, and then capture within reporting requirements ads that simply” refer” to a candidate and are directed to his or her electorate. The ads affected would surely be “sham” ads, intended to influence the election, and disclosure of the financing of these “electioneering communications” would be appropriate, as it is in the case of clear-cut campaign advertising.
But is there such a thing as a genuine issue ad--one that is designed to discuss candidates in relation to issues but without, within the four corners of the ad, expressly calling for the candidate’s election or defeat? Or to put it in doctrinal terms, may the government reporting rules reach ads that do not involve either express electoral advocacy or its “functional equivalent”? The Court in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission took it more or less for granted that genuine issue ads would not be subject to mandatory disclosure. 540 U.S. 93, 206 n.88 (2003) (“ [W]e assume that the interests that justify the regulation of campaign speech might not apply to the regulation of genuine issue ads").
In Citizens United, the Supreme Court devoted a line to the seemingly contrary conclusion, suggesting in the most general terms that "the public has an interest in knowing who was speaking about a candidate shortly before an election." Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310, 369 (2010). But its discussion on this point was short, and it also appeared in a case that involved a communication--a movie--that was plainly intended to influence voter choice. It was decidedly not a case about “genuine” issues speech.
The Independence Institute, a 501(c)(3) organization, has pressed on this issue with a challenge to the application of the reporting rules to an ad lacking either express advocacy or its functional equivalent--i.e. a "genuine issue ad.” The ad named two Senators, one running for election, in appealing for support of pending legislation on criminal justice reform. A three-judge district court last month rejected the claim that the ad was constitutionally protected. The Court relied on the language of Citizens United. It appeared satisfied that even in the case of a genuine issue ad, a reference to a candidate was sufficient to trigger the electioneering communication disclosure requirements. Independence Institute v. Federal Election Commission, No. 14-cv-1500, 2016 WL656396 (D.D.C. November 3, 2016).
Americans for Prosperity has won a decision blocking California’s demand for the disclosure of its donors. The court didn’t agree with the State that it really needed the information to meet its regulatory responsibilities, and it was satisfied that AFP donors had reason to fear that disclosure would subject them to reprisal and harassment. The State’s commitment to keep the information confidential did not survive the showing that it had not over time performed very well on that score.
There are concerns and conflicts running throughout this controversy, and others like it, that the court did not expressly acknowledge—but that are now common in cases of this kind.
The 10th Circuit decided another disclosure case, Coalition for Secular Government v. Williams, on the mandatory reporting of “issue speech”. It held that an individual collecting small sums to wage a campaign on ballot questions did not have to comply with registration and disclosure requirements applicable under state law to “issue committees.” The "committee" that was really just a one-person enterprise was too "small scale,” the government's interests too limited: the cost in the particular case exceeded the benefits.
Did this result turn in any way on the nature of the advocacy – – that it was on issues, not for or against candidates? The courts have long distinguished electoral from issue speech in determining the scope of constitutional protections. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1(1976); Citizens against Rent Control v. Berkeley, 454 U.S. 290 (1981); First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978). The government's interests in the case of campaign speech are more varied and include both the prevention of corruption and its appearance, and the assistance that disclosure provides to enforcement of contribution and other regulatory limits. The 10th Circuit found those rationales “irrelevant or inapplicable to issue committees,” and while it has upheld Colorado's issue committee disclosure in principle on the strength of another interest, the voters’ informational interest, it concluded that this interest was insufficient to sustain the law as applied to the Coalition for Secular Government.
In campaign finance law, this distinction between issues and campaign speech has led reform advocates and their allies in legislatures to insist that while the difference may matter to constitutional analysis some of the time, this cannot be not the case all of the time. They maintain that some issue speech is often campaign speech in disguise, and the Supreme Court in McConnell upheld "electioneering communication" disclosure on the basis of its finding that some issue speech was a “sham.” Now the courts must entertain claims in as applied to cases that the plaintiffs’ issue speech is not a sham, that it is the real thing, and that it cannot be regulated as campaign finance spending.
Long in the field of campaign finance, well versed in its triumphs and tribulations, Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center objects strongly to the suggestions for disclosure reform I co-authored with Professor Samuel Issacharoff. It’s all a magic trick, he argues, that accomplishes the reverse of its stated intention: it moves contributions into the dark, raises the risk corruption and disregards the lessons of Watergate. The public is not “gullible”: it won’t buy it.
It is difficult not to imagine that Mr. Noble is engaged in theater of his own, something like the aerial feat performed yesterday by the mailman in a gyrocopter who touched down on the Capitol grounds with a similarly passionate appeal for campaign finance reform. This gentleman, undoubtedly sincere but less clearly prudent, entitled his project “Kitty Hawk”, after the Wright Brothers’ fabled flight in North Carolina in 1903. Larry, if he were maneuvering a craft, might have named it “Watergate," and he would have refreshed the message by 70 years, with only another four decades to go to cross over into the current century and to the present time.