Court Strikes Wisconsin Limits on Political Speech

     (CN) - Wisconsin cannot ban corporations from making election-related speech, the 7th Circuit ruled, while striking down key provisions of the state's campaign-finance laws.
     The ruling Wednesday is a victory for Wisconsin Right to Life Inc, and its political action committee, which sued the state in 2010 to block the enforcement of several state statutes and rules against groups that spend money for political speech independently of candidates and parties.
     That complaint alleged that the laws were vague and overbroad, and that they unjustifiably burden the free-speech rights of independent political speakers.
     In calling for an injunction Wednesday, the Chicago-based federal appeals court followed up on a 2011 decision in the same case that took aim at Wisconsin's aggregate $10,000 cap on campaign contributions, which it found unconstitutional as applied to organizations that independently spend money on election-related speech.
     U.S. District Judge Charles Clevert Jr. enjoined the ban on corporate political spending on remand, partially enjoined a regulatory disclaimer rule, but denied the rest of the challenge.
     The unanimous three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit deemed that injunction "improper," and said state regulators had overstepped their authority by banning spending by corporations and establishing burdensome rules for so-called "issue advocacy groups" that merely mentioned candidates' names in advertisements.
     "On the merits, in the domain of campaign-finance law, the First Amendment requires a heightened degree of regulatory clarity and a close fit between the government's means and its end, and some forms of regulation are categorically impermissible," Judge Diane Sykes wrote for the court.
     "Like other campaign-finance systems, Wisconsin's is labyrinthian and difficult to decipher without a background in this area of the law; in certain critical respects, it violates the constitutional limits on the government's power to regulate independent political speech," she continued.
     Part of the problem, the panel concluded, is that Wisconsin's election laws have not been updated to keep pace with the evolution in Supreme Court doctrine that set the boundaries on the government's power to regulate political speech.
     Previously the 7th Circuit found that in the wake of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, restrictions on campaign donations can be justified only by government interest in preventing action or apparent corruption.
     "In addition, key administrative rules do not cohere well with the statutes, introducing a patchwork of new and different terms, definitions, and burdens on independent political speakers, the intent and cumulative effect of which is to enlarge the reach of the statutory scheme," Sykes wrote. "Finally, the state elections agency has given conflicting signals about its intent to enforce some aspects of the regulatory mélange."
     The District Court must issue a permanent injunction on remand consistent with the opinion.