On January 30, 1976, the United States Supreme Court handed down Buckley v. Valeo, still its most important decision at the intersection of campaign finance and the First Amendment. The Court brought forth a per curiam opinion that invalidated significant parts of the 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act. The Buckley Court denied Congress the power to limit campaign spending. But not completely. The same Court decided Congress could restrict contributions to candidates to prevent quid pro quo corruption or “the appearance of corruption.” Giving citizens an “equal voice” in elections, however, could not justify suppressing speech.
Buckley v. Valeo pleased few. Free speech advocates lamented the limits on spending imposed through contribution limits. Later they would criticize the ever-broadening concept of corruption used to justify ever more restrictions on speech. Advocates of regulation thought money had little to do with speech, but a lot to do with inequality. Political realists thought unlimited spending funded by limited contributions would eventually prove unworkable.
Yet Buckley did not fall. It remains a vital precedent that restrains and empowers Congress. But should Buckley be considered a First Amendment failure? Or did it embrace inevitable compromises that were both worse and better than everyone desired? How does Buckley affect the law and American politics and campaigning today? Does the decision have a future?
On January 26, 2016, the Center Competitive for Politics and the Cato Institute hosted a joint conference to examine the landmark decision. Please watch the videos of the event below to hear our panelists’ take on these essential questions of First Amendment law and politics.
Bradley Smith, Center for Competitive Politics
Floyd Abrams, Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP
Interviewer: Matea Gold, The Washington Post
Jeffrey Milyo, University of Missouri
Jay Goodliffe, Brigham Young University
Interviewer: David Keating, Center for Competitive Politics
John Samples, Cato Institute
Jan Baran, Wiley Rein LLP
Interviewer: David Savage, Los Angeles Times