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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 9, 2023 | Back issues
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Name Change Ordered|for ‘Stop Hillary’ PAC

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) - A political action committee cannot call itself Stop Hillary since election guidelines prohibit unauthorized uses of candidate names, a federal judge ruled.

Stop Hillary PAC and its treasurer Dan Backer had hoped to prove that the Federal Election Commission ban violates the First Amendment, as well as its equal-protection and due-process rights.

U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee disagreed Monday, noting that the statute in question "has been in use for 35 years."

The 1980 FEC statute stipulates that only the authorized, official committee of a candidate can use the candidate's name in its title. Unauthorized committees are barred from using candidate names in their official titles to avoid voter confusion.

"This narrow and specific requirement of candidates does not prohibit speech, rather, it limits potential confusion about which person, group or candidate the PAC represents," Lee said.

Such regulation gives voters the "confidence to contribute, support, or oppose the PAC accordingly," according to the 17-page ruling.

"The fact that the government's interest only impedes on the plaintiffs' ability to include a candidate's name in its title alone" is evidence that the statute "is the least restrictive means of accomplishing the government's interest for transparency in PACs," Lee concluded.

Judge Lee found insignificant that no one can point to "a single individual anywhere in the nation who even momentarily suspected that Stop Hillary Pac might be Clinton's official authorized campaign committee, or that Stop Hillary Pac was trying to facilitate Clinton's effort to become president."

This argument "does nothing to address the possibility that members of the public would see the PAC unambiguously opposing one candidate - for example 'Stop Hillary' - and mistakenly get the impression that the PAC was in fact an authorized PAC supporting one of Hillary Clinton's opponents," Lee wrote (emphasis in original).

That such confusion could still exist is evidence of why the "mandate should not be disturbed," the opinion says.

Lee added that the purpose of the law is simple: "to alleviate the constant public confusion surrounding Political Action Committees."

Prior to the FEC mandate, the use of a candidate's name in an unauthorized PAC sometimes led to "misdirected campaign contributions and increased voter confusion," the court found.

In a 1992 explanation of the rule, the FEC noted that it had become more concerned with the fundraising projects of unauthorized PACS using candidates' names.

"It is possible ... that potential donors think they are giving money to the candidate named in the project's title, when this is not the case," the opinion says.

In a new report on this phenomenon, the Center for Public Integrity noted that actor Daniel Craig - most known for playing James Bond - gave $50,000 to America Socially United, a PAC he believed was supporting Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont running against Clinton for president in the Democratic primary.

Though the PAC's website is BetonBernie.com, the group has no connection to Sanders, who has indeed disavowed super PACs.

Lee noted Monday that voter confusion is lower when special-project titles or other PAC communications unambiguously oppose a candidate.

An exception the FEC implemented in 1994 allows this, but the FEC never meant for the exception to apply to PAC titles, according to the ruling.

Lee said the name prohibition in unauthorized PAC titles remains necessary.

"The court sees no justification for, right before an election, disrupting a law that is grounded in ensuring the political process is fair and easily understood by the voting public," the opinion states.

Noting that the Stop Hillary treasurer recognized the confusion that using a candidate's name causes, Lee said Backer called it "appropriate" to order a name change for a PAC whose official title bore the name Stand With Rand.

Such a name "presented 'a legitimate basis for confusion in the name' and could 'interfere with Rand Paul's messaging,'" the opinion states (emphasis in original).

In his 2013 filing statement to form the PAC, Backer said he wanted to ensure that Clinton "never becomes president of the United States."

Backer knew of the FEC rule prohibiting the use of a declared candidate's name in a PAC title, but said he did not believe at the time of the PAC's founding that she would seek the Democratic Party's nomination for the Presidency, according to the ruling.

Clinton was not a candidate at the time.

Lee said the breadth of the FEC statute will allow Stop Hillary Pac to retain its website and social-media accounts.

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