You Shouldn’t Have to Register with the Government to Engage in Political Advocacy

Vermont Right to Life Committee, Inc. (VRLC) is a non-profit advocacy group organized as a “social welfare organization” under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. It seeks to achieve “universal recognition of the sanctity of human life from conception through natural death.” To accomplish this, VRLC publishes pamphlets, newsletters, brochures, mass e-mails, newspaper articles, and radio ads. The group does not advocate for the election of any candidate or coordinate its actions with any candidate. It simply take donations from supporters and tries to educate people about the sanctity of human life.

Nevertheless, Vermont has required VRLC to register as a political committee because it takes in more than $1000 in donations and seeks to “influence elections.” This means that VRLC has to (1) register with the state, which includes appointing a treasurer and creating a special bank account; (2) keep extensive records about its activities; and (3) regularly give the government extensive reports. All of these requirements add up to a significant burden on VRLC’s educational activities and advocacy while not furthering any real government interest. After all, if VRLC is talking about issues not candidates, then, according to the Supreme Court, there is little or no chance that it will corrupt candidates.

Or, to put it another way, if VRLC has to register and report to the government—and just think for a moment how ridiculous and Orwellian (and Putinesque) that statement is—then who doesn’t have to register with the government to speak about political issues?

The registration and reporting burdens on VRLC are so great, in fact, that the group has said it’s “simply not worth it” to engage in constitutionally protected speech if it has to comply with Vermont’s regulations. VRLC thus brought a First Amendment challenge to many of the state’s convoluted campaign finance laws. The trial court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with the state government, however, and held that the burdens on VRLC’s speech were constitutionally acceptable.

VRLC has now petitioned the Supreme Court. Cato, joining the Center for Competitive Politics, has filed a supporting brief.

We argue that the Court should take the case in order to clarify the test for when an organization’s “major purpose” is the “nomination or election of candidates.” The “major purpose test,” which derives from the foundational campaign finance case of Buckley v. Valeo (1976), exists to save issue-advocacy groups from burdensome requirements like Vermont’s. Unfortunately, courts throughout the country misapply this test and place heightened burdens on organizations that simply want to talk about issues of public concern.

We also argue that regulations like Vermont’s place unique and often insurmountable burdens on small organizations. These laws are expensive to comply with, so larger organizations with more resources for accountants and lawyers—overhead that can be better absorbed—have a comparative advantage over smaller players. If the Supreme Court doesn’t take this case, states will continue to find it easy to shut down the political speech—particularly of feisty small idea entrepreneurs—while labeling such censorship as ordinary campaign finance regulations.

The Supreme Court will decide later this year or early next year whether to review Vermont Right to Life Committee v. Sorrell.