U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear challenge to Rhode Island disclosure law

On April 25, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would not take up Gaspee Project v. Mederos, a lawsuit challenging Rhode Island’s campaign finance disclosure regulations. The court’s refusal to hear the appeal means a lower court ruling upholding the state’s law will stand.

Background

Rhode Island law requires organizations that spend more than $1,000 per year on independent expenditures or electioneering communications file a report with the Board of Elections disclosing all donors who contribute more than $1,000. Affected organizations must also register with the Board, provide the name and address of the person or group responsible for the expenditure, and list the names of their five largest donors from the previous year.

On Nov. 21, 2019, two 501(c)(4) groups, the Gaspee Project and the Illinois Opportunity Project, sued the Rhode Island Board of Elections, saying paid political messages were protected speech if they were not coordinated with a specific candidate’s campaign. Lawyers for the groups also said “compelled disclosure of their members and supporters could lead to substantial personal and economic repercussions” including “harassment, career damage, and even death threats for engaging and expressing their views in the public square.”

The plaintiffs challenged three specific provisions of the law: requiring groups to disclose all donors contributing $1,000 or more, registering with the Board and providing the name and address of the person or group paying for advertisements, and listing their five largest donors from the previous year. The plaintiffs said the law’s provisions “do not withstand the requisite degree of scrutiny and, in any event, that they infringe constitutionally protected privacy, associational, and free-speech rights.” 

In August 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Mary McElroy, who was appointed by President Donald Trump (R) in 2018, dismissed the case. McElroy wrote: “The Act’s 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. The plaintiffs, therefore, cannot state a plausible claim that the Act is facially violative of First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.” 

The organizations appealed the case to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which rejected the plaintiff’s arguments on Sept. 14, 2021. Writing for the court, Judge Bruce Marshall Selya (appointed by President Ronald Reagan (R) in 1986) said: “The Act’s disclosure requirements are narrowly tailored enough to avoid any First Amendment infirmity.” Selya also said “we hold that the challenged provisions of the Act bear a substantial relation to a sufficiently important governmental interest and are narrowly tailored enough to withstand exacting scrutiny.”

Appeal to the Supreme Court

The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 10, 2021. The appeal focused only on the top-five donor disclaimer provision of the law. The plaintiffs said “the requirement to substitute the government’s speech for the group’s own violates the First Amendment..because it forces speakers to adopt views with which they may disagree.” The Supreme Court denied the plaintiff’s petition on April 25 without comment.

Reactions

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha (D) said, “State campaign and election finance laws exist for a reason: to inform Rhode Islanders of the sources of financial support, directly or indirectly, for candidates for public office. Such information is critical to voters evaluating the messaging they are subjected to by those spending significant sums of money to influence their decisions. An informed electorate is integral to our democracy, and the Court’s action sends a strong message in support of that principle.”

In a Campaign Legal Center news release, Senior Vice President Paul Smith said, “To reduce political corruption, we need real transparency about who is spending big money in elections and to that end, voters in Rhode Island have a right to know who is attempting to influence their votes. This denial of review from the Supreme Court of the United States means that vital right will remain in place and continue to enable Rhode Islanders to be well-informed before heading into the voting booth.”

“We are disappointed by the result and will continue to fight for free speech,” Suhr said. “Denial of [petition of certiorari] is never a reflection of the court’s view of the merits of a case,” Suhr said, adding that “[t]hese laws are being considered and adopted in other states, and we will continue to challenge them to bring this issue back in front of the court. 

What we’ve been reading

The big picture

Number of relevant bills by state: We’re currently tracking 142 pieces of legislation dealing with donor disclosure and privacy. Of these bills, 115 are primarily focused on disclosure, and 27 are primarily focused on privacy. To reflect this distinction, the charts in this section and the recent legislative actions below are divided between disclosure legislation and privacy legislation. On the maps below, a darker shade of green indicates a greater number of relevant bills. Click here for a complete list of all the bills we’re tracking. 

Donor disclosure legislation

Number of relevant bills by current legislative status

Number of relevant bills by partisan status of sponsor(s)

Donor privacy legislation

Number of relevant bills by current legislative status

Number of relevant bills by partisan status of sponsor(s)

Recent legislative actions

For complete information on all of the bills we are tracking, click here

Donor disclosure legislation

  • California AB1819: This bill would prohibit contributions from a foreign government, foreign principal, or foreign-influenced business entity.
    • Democratic sponsorship
    • This bill was referred to committee on May 3. 
  • California AB2528: This bill would require elected officials to file reports electronically with the secretary of state, and these reports would be available for public inspection. 
    • Republican sponsorship
    • This bill was referred to committee on May 5.
  • Colorado SB237: This bill would require a person making direct ballot issue or ballot question expenditures to report to the secretary of state and disclose their name in certain communications about a ballot issue or ballot question.
    • Bipartisan sponsorship
    • This bill passed the upper chamber on May 5. 
  • Connecticut SB00431: This bill would require committees to report referendum spending as an independent expenditure. It would also require committees to disclose donors for certain types of referendum spending.
    • Democratic sponsorship
    • This bill passed the upper chamber on May 3. 

Donor privacy legislation

  • Connecticut HB05222: This bill would repeal the requirement for paid solicitors to submit the text of planned solicitations and remove the ability of the Department of Consumer Protection to inspect contribution records upon request. 
    • Unknown sponsorship
    • This bill passed the lower chamber on May 3.

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