A federal judge has rejected a bid to invalidate a chunk of Rhode Island’s campaign finance laws, but conservative groups seeking to launch anonymous political campaigns have filed an appeal.
U.S. District Court Judge Mary McElroy at the end of August dismissed a lawsuit against the state Board of Elections by Rhode Island’s Gaspee Project and conservative Chicago nonprofit the Illinois Opportunity Project, which argued the state’s disclosure laws for independent campaign expenditures are unconstitutional.
Under Rhode Island law, any person or organization spending $1,000 or more to benefit a candidate or an outcome in a ballot referendum must disclose it to the Board of Elections, even if they are not coordinated with a campaign. (Political contributions made directly to campaigns under a different of rules.)
But the conservative groups and their attorneys with the Liberty Justice Center argued that donors, businesses and organizations should be afforded a “safe space” to engage in political speech without fear that their actions will face pushback, as long as it is not coordinated with individual candidates.
Revealing the identities of donors could not only expose those donors to reprisals, but have a chilling affect on fundraising, they argued, citing as precedent a court case about revealing the NAACP’s membership during the Civil Rights era.
But McElroy ruled that Rhode Island’s independent-expenditure disclosure rules do not place a significant enough burden on political speech to override the public interest in following the money.
The “disclosure and disclaimer requirements are justified by the sufficiently important state interest of an informed electorate and any burdens on political speech that they may cause are substantially related to that state interest,” McElroy wrote in the Aug. 28 ruling.
She also rejected the use of the Civil Rights era precedent.
“While the plaintiffs do make these conclusory allegations about a concern of reprisals,” she wrote, they are “a far cry from the clear and present danger that white supremacist vigilantes and their abettors in the Alabama state government presented to members of the NAACP in the 1950s.”
Common Cause Rhode Island, which has advocated for stricter campaign finance laws for years, celebrated the decision.
“We are glad to see that the U.S. District Court dismissed the Gaspee Project suit seeking to overturn the state’s independent expenditure disclosure law,” Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion Jr. wrote in an email. “The court correctly applied precedent, including the part of the infamous Citizens United decision that found donor disclosure does not burden political speech.”
But the fight is not over.
On Monday, the plaintiffs appealed the decision to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
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