PROVIDENCE — A federal appeals court upheld Rhode Island’s political spending disclosure law, finding that it served an important interest: telling people who’s spending money to sway their votes and change their minds.
The groups challenging the law vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court, but lawyers for the state and supporters of the law say it’s an important victory for transparency, one that could have national implications.
“We’re seeing a number of challenges throughout the country to disclosure type laws in similar contexts,” said Rhode Island special assistant attorney general Katherine Connolly Sadeck, who argued the case. “This is an important decision that will probably be referenced in a lot of those cases.”
The decision, from the Boston-based panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, came down Tuesday.
The suit was brought by the Gaspee Project, which bills itself as pro-growth and anti-progressive, and the conservative Illinois Opportunity Project.
They filed a lawsuit against the state Board of Elections in federal court challenging Rhode Island’s political spending disclosure law. The law imposes requirements on organizations that spend more than $1,000 a year on what are called independent expenditures or electioneering communications. Those organizations have to file a report with the Board of Elections disclosing all donors of more than $1,000 if their general fund was used for those expenditures. Covered organizations also have to include their own names, and the names of their five biggest donors from the previous year, on electioneering communications themselves.
The two groups said they were planning on spending at least $1,000 on paid-issue advocacy communications about local votes on property taxes. They said the disclosure and disclaimer laws violated the First Amendment, and that they infringed privacy and associational rights.
A Rhode Island federal judge dismissed the suit. On Tuesday, the federal appeals court agreed, finding that the law passed what’s called “exacting scrutiny.” It was narrowly tailored: The law focuses only on larger spenders, for example, and on those involved in election-related spending, rather than just general political speech.
The law they challenged was passed by the Rhode Island General Assembly in 2012, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. Though Citizens United allowed corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited amounts on elections, the Supreme Court still made room for donor disclosure and disclaimer requirements.
That’s what Rhode Island put in place. For the first time, that law has been tested, and for now it has passed muster.
A lawyer for the groups challenging the law said they were not giving up.
“Free speech and citizen privacy are fundamental to our democracy,” Daniel Suhr, managing attorney at the Liberty Justice Center, said in an emailed statement. “We continue to believe in the strength of our arguments, and we plan to appeal to the Supreme Court to vindicate these foundational constitutional rights.”
John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, welcomed the news of the First Circuit decision. Marion said the nearly decade-old law has provided Rhode Islanders with more information about who’s spending money on elections. Other states could follow suit, Marion said.
“By upholding this, they’re upholding a particularly robust disclosure law that may be a model for the nation,” Marion said.