Minnesota Campaign Speech Limits
Regulation Dishes Out First Amendment Rights on a First-Come, First-Served Basis
The government could not pass a law saying that only the first 12 people to vote in an election get to vote for every office, or that only the first 12 people who arrive at church get to stay for the entire sermon. But that is exactly what Minnesota law did when it comes to contributions for state political candidates.
Minnesota, like many states and the federal government, limits the amount of money any one person can donate to a candidate. For example, Minnesota limits the amount one may contribute to a candidate for the State House at $1,000. But until IJ filed this case, once a candidate raised $12,500 in contributions between $500 and $1,000, that limit was arbitrarily cut in half. That means that if a candidate for State House accepted contributions of $1,000 from 12 different people, the thirteenth donor, and everyone after, could only contribute $500 or less.
Contributing to candidates for political office is a well-recognized First Amendment right and a right that the Supreme Court reaffirmed in the recent McCutcheon v. FEC (2014) decision. That right is not dished out on a first-come, first-served basis. Minnesota’s arbitrary system, called the “special sources limit,” violated the free speech rights of both donors and candidates.
That’s why two donors, Doug Seaton and Van Carlson, and two candidates, State Representative Linda Runbeck and Scott Dutcher, fought back. They joined with the Institute for Justice—the national law firm for liberty—in a federal lawsuit to strike down Minnesota’s special sources limit and to restore the fundamental constitutional principle of equal treatment under the law. Their lawsuit was among the first opportunities for a federal court to apply the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCutcheon to a state campaign finance law.
After the case was filed, IJ quickly secured a preliminary injunction preventing the law’s enforcement. Later, the Minnesota Legislature repealed the law, giving all Minnesotans a victory for free speech.