Home » Articles » Case » Campaign Finance and Other Political Campaign Regulations » Federal Election Commission v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life (1986)

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In Federal Election Commission v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, 479 U.S. 238 (1986), the Supreme Court found that while a publication by an anti-abortion rights group encouraging people to vote ”pro-life” violated the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), application of that federal statute to the MCFL violated the First Amendment.

Nonprofit corporation violated campaign law through brochure

Massachusetts Citizens for Life (MCFL), a nonprofit corporation, engaged in educational and political advocacy aimed at defending “the right to life of all human beings, born and unborn.” Its resources were derived exclusively from member donations and fundraising activities.

To further its mission, in September 1978 MCFL prepared a “Special Edition” of its periodic newsletter, encouraging people to vote “pro-life” in the upcoming primary election in Massachusetts. The newsletter featured photos of more than a dozen candidates identified as favoring the views of the organization. In response to release of the publication, several people filed a complaint with the FEC, arguing that the MCFL violated section 316 of the FECA by permitting an unauthorized expenditure of corporate funds in behalf of a political candidate.

Court said campaign law applied to nonprofit corporations violated First Amendment

After reviewing the requirements imposed on the MCFL, including the reporting requirements and the segregated-fund provision, Justice William J. Brennan Jr., for the unanimous Court, wrote that although FECA did not “remove all opportunities for independent spending by organizations such as MCFL, the avenue it leaves open is more burdensome than it forecloses.”

He also noted, however, that a mere burden does not terminate the constitutional analysis. Therefore, Justice Brennan reviewed the state’s proffered interest to determine whether it was sufficiently compelling to justify the imposition. The regulation in question sought to prevent undue political influence by those who exercised control over large sums of aggregated wealth. It further aimed to prevent general corporate treasuries from being inappropriately diverted for political purposes.

The Court concluded that the MCFL was designed to disseminate political ideas rather than to amass capital. This conclusion mitigated the concern about a diversion of funds, because the MCFL’s resources were “not a function of its success in the economic market place.” Unlike a business corporation, the MCFL was supported by those who were fully aware of its mission.

And although the leadership of the MCFL may have supported an individual disfavored by the membership, “any contribution … involves some degree of delegation.”

Nonprofit corporation in question provided indirect expenditures not direct contributions

Brennan distinguished this case from Federal Election Commission v. National Right to Work Committee (1982), in which the Court upheld the application of section 316 to a nonprofit corporation.

In his view, the MCFL was unlike the entity at issue in National Right to Work because the MCFL provided indirect expenditures, not “direct contributions to political candidates.”

In short, the Court grounded its holding in three essential characteristics displayed by the MCFL:

  • First, it was formed for the purpose of promoting political ideas.
  • Second, it did not have shareholders.
  • Third, it was not established by a business corporation or labor union, and it did not accept contributions from such organizations.

This article was originally published in 2009. Daniel M. Katz is a Professor of Law at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.

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